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Acquco t-shirt for Tesla giveaway
Acquco

Start-ups are raising hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire the top independent sellers on the Amazon Marketplace, creating a gold rush to “roll up” these mostly small businesses into larger entities that have better resources and can pour money into growth.

Competition to acquire these Amazon sellers has gotten so fierce that one player, Acquco, is giving away a Tesla Model Y to anyone who refers a seller that the company ends up buying.

Acquco, founded last year by Raunak Nirmal, has representatives at the annual Prosper Show this week in Las Vegas, where Amazon sellers convene to network and share tips. The company is handing out t-shirts and flyers that say, “Refer a Seller, get a Tesla.”

Nirmal said in an interview that as of Thursday the company had received about 200 referrals in a little over 24 hours since starting the program and launching the promotional web page. He said the company is willing to give away up to $10 million worth of Model Ys, which retail for a starting price of around $50,000.

“There are two options for rewards,” the web page says. “You can either get a Tesla — you will have $49,990 to put towards a Tesla model of your choice.  Alternatively, you can choose to take the cash directly!” 

The reward should be received within 45 days of the closing of the acquisition, the site says, and the recipient will owe income tax on the car or the cash.

The red-hot market for Amazon resellers

Much of Amazon’s dominance in e-commerce has come from its third-party marketplace, which is filled with millions of independent sellers who use the company’s logistics services, shipping, fulfillment centers and mammoth customer base to reach buyers.

Growing a business on Amazon has become increasingly complex in recent years due to a surge in Chinese counterfeits and other bad actors who set out to manipulate reviews and get rivals shut down. Aggregators are using those challenges as an opportunity to buy up promising products and storefronts, while using their scale and operational experience to clean up the marketplace for consumers.

Acquco has raised over $165 million in equity and debt to buy Amazon marketplace retailers, building a business with close to $200 million in revenue from those entities. It’s one of the busiest corners of the start-up market, as companies like Thrasio, which ranked 22nd on the 2021 CNBC Disruptor 50 list, along with Perch, Heyday, Branded and Boosted Commerce have raked in billions of dollars combined to pull together businesses that have grown up on Amazon.

Nirmal said the top sellers are so inundated with pitches that it’s difficult to get meetings with them.

“As a seller, when you get a message from someone about acquiring your business, you think of it as spam and go about your day,” said Nirmal, who previously spent over a year in Amazon’s marketplace business and also started his own brands and consulting businesses. “This is a unique opportunity to connect with friends, family and people that surround the sellers.”

While Nirmal didn’t attend the Prosper show, he sent a few of his 60 full-time employees, including the head of sales, to network and meet sellers. Acquco also had some contractors distributing flyers and handing out merchandise.

Acquco flyer for Tesla giveaway
Acquco

Rivals Thrasio, Heyday and Perch had an even bigger presence at the show, as they were paid exhibitors with floor space and some speaking slots, according to Prosper’s website. It’s a big change from the last conference in 2019, when the rollup market was in its infancy. Thrasio was founded in 2018 and others followed over the next couple years.

Total attendance at Prosper appears to be up about 15% to 20% over the last in-person show in 2019, which attracted over 1,500 people, a conference representative said. The show began on Tuesday and wraps up on Thursday.

How to lure sellers

Casey Gauss, a vice president at Thrasio, attended the show as part of his company’s contingent. He told CNBC that he joined in April 2020 as employee number 26, and that the last time he checked last week, the company had a workforce of 930.

Thrasio has raised $1.75 billion, the most of any company in the space. While it’s not giving away Teslas, the company did host a pricey party Wednesday night at the Bellagio Hotel, called “Feast by the Fountains,” referring to the resort’s outdoor fountain show. Gauss said he expected about 180 people.

“Feast by The Fountains will offer 5-star American cuisine and an open bar of top shelf cocktails inspired by the top supper clubs around the world,” the website for the event said.

Gauss said that the topic of aggregators has been front and center at the show and that companies have to find clever ways to meet sellers.

“We tried to throw a nice event to allow high-end networking,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity, not only for us to hang out with prospective sellers that may want to sell to us and people that have sold to us. But also, we’re pretty intentional about just building good relationships in the community.”

For Acquco, this year’s Prosper is its first big event. The company said it’s trying to get its name out to more people — and the Tesla giveaway program is a way to make a splash.

David Lam, the company’s vice president of growth strategy, said he’s been working with Tesla’s enterprise sales team on the program. The start-up did not get reduced pricing on the Model Ys, but he expects that once the program reaches about 20 cars, a discount will kick in, and then perhaps a steeper discount at the 50th sale.

The new Tesla Model Y is introduced. Tesla has expanded its model range to include an SUV based on the current Model 3.
Hannes Breustedt | picture alliance | Getty Images

Tesla giveaways have become more commonplace among non-profits as a way to raise money and give people a chance to win through online raffles. The overall popularity of the cars is the main reason Tesla says it’s able to keep down marketing, promotional and advertising costs, which were “immaterial” over the past three years, according to its latest annual report.

Acquco says in the giveaway material that it accepts leads for businesses with at least $500,000 in revenue but Nirmal expects to generally buy sellers that have topped $1 million. Nirmal won’t say how many acquisitions he’s completed to date, but said that three deals have been signed this week that will bring in about $40 million in revenue. Those all came prior to the Tesla giveaway.

Nirmal said Acquco started marketing the program at Prosper and will continue this week with ads across social platforms and Google as well as through influencers.

“If there’s a business that looks good and fits into our partner profile, we want to give away these Teslas,” Nirmal said.

— CNBC’s Katie Schoolov and Lora Kolodny contributed to this report.

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Amazon’s ditching the plastic air pillows in its boxes

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Amazon's ditching the plastic air pillows in its boxes

Amazon replaces plastic packaging: Here's what to know

Amazon said Thursday it has removed 95% of the plastic air pillows from its packaging in North America and will replace them with paper fillers made from 100% recycled content.

It marks Amazon’s largest plastic-packaging reduction effort and will help it remove nearly 15 billion plastic pillows annually.

“We are working towards full removal in North America by end of year and will continue to innovate, test, and scale in order to prioritize curbside recyclable materials,” VP of Mechatronics and Sustainable Packaging Pat Lindner said in the announcement.

The e-commerce company began transitioning away from plastic filler in October 2023 when it announced its first U.S. automated fulfillment center to eliminate plastic-delivery packaging. Amazon collaborated with suppliers to instead source paper fillers that are also curbside recyclable.

This is not the first step that Amazon has taken to reduce its packaging waste. In 2015, the company launched the Ships in Product Packaging program, an initiative designed to reduce the use of Amazon’s signature brown box and instead ship products in their original packaging.

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Startup Kinetic rolls out robots to fix electric cars, and someday robotaxis

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Startup Kinetic rolls out robots to fix electric cars, and someday robotaxis

Kinetic cofounders: CEO Nikhil Naikal, CTO Sander Marques, COO Chris Weber

Courtesy: Kinetic Automation

While electric vehicle demand is still increasing in the U.S., the sales growth rate for cars that pollute less has cooled down in 2024 due partly to the high cost of insurance and repairs for tech-laden new models.

A 2024 study by J.D. Power found that, despite the climate benefits, only 26% of car buyers in the U.S. were “very likely to consider purchasing” an EV in the next year, and more than 20% were “very unlikely to consider an EV purchase” at all.

That’s where Santa Ana, California startup Kinetic Automation comes in. By providing diagnostics and recalibration of the high-tech systems in modern vehicles, the company hopes to decrease costs associated with EV ownership and repairs.

The startup, which employs about 40 people full-time, has developed a robotic system that uses computer vision and machine-learning software to quickly diagnose issues with a vehicle’s digital systems.

Kinetic CEO and co-founder Nikhil Naikal explained that a lot of new models, especially battery electrics, are loaded with bells and whistles such as touchscreens and robust infotainment software, along with a variety of cameras and sensors that enable everything from rapid charging to driver safety features including forward collision avoidance, lane-keeping and adaptive cruise control.

The existing collision repair industry is well-equipped to handle most physical fixes like replacing a bumper, a busted windshield, brakes and paint or adjusting alignment. But for many collision repair centers and auto dealerships, ensuring all sensors, software and computers are working properly can prove time-consuming and expensive.

Kinetic puts its robotic systems and technicians to work helping these shops and dealerships fix the finicky, “digital” aspects of customers’ cars.

Here’s how it works: A customer’s car rolls up to one of Kinetic’s service bays, where it is scanned from bumper to fender with machine vision sensors, some on a robotic arm that peers over the top of the vehicle.

The scan determines which systems need to be precisely programmed or need a recalibration. Then Kinetic’s software, which is connected to the vehicle’s systems, will initiate and track the completion of those fixes.

Kinetic uses robotics and AI to recalibrate the software and sensors in electric vehicles.

Courtesy: Kinetic Automation

The company built its first four service hubs in Las Vegas, and Orange County, San Bernardino and Riverside counties in California.

To fuel its growth, Kinetic has raised $21 million in a Series B round of venture funding led by Menlo Ventures, joined by Allstate Strategic Ventures, Liberty Mutual Strategic Ventures and the company’s earliest investors Lux Capital, Construct Capital and Haystack Ventures.

Menlo Ventures’ Partner Shawn Carolan, who invested in Uber and Jump Bikes, said collision companies and auto dealerships that had worked with Kinetic as pilot customers helped convince his firm to lead the deal.

“They were saying, ‘This reduced our cycle time by days.’ Or ‘We got cars back to customers faster and cheaper,’ and ‘This made my life way easier,'” he explained. “So we knew this was already solving a tremendous pain point.”

Before starting Kinetic with his co-founders, COO Chris Weber and CTO Sander Marques, Naikal worked as the vice president of software engineering at Velodyne, a company that made lidar sensors that enable robots, drones and autonomous vehicles to detect and avoid objects in their surrounding environment. Velodyne merged with Ouster in 2023.

Weber previously worked as an operations leader at Uber, while Marques is a repeat tech entrepreneur whose prior company developed engine control modules for high-performance vehicles.

Kinetic will one day provide its services to robotaxi fleets, Naikal said, and to the owners of other autonomous vehicles. But for now, the startup is focused on hiring, training technicians and building out its service hubs across the U.S. to handle a higher volume of auto repairs, especially the electric vehicles that are growing to comprise a larger portion of cars on U.S. roads each year.

So far, Kinetic has most commonly worked on Ford Mach-E, GM Chevy Bolt, Hyundai Ioniq EVs, and some Teslas at its existing service hubs, the CEO said.

Market research firm Canalys forecasts that sales of battery and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles combined will reach 2.2 million units in 2024 in North America, representing about 12.5% of all new vehicle sales in the region.

“Motor vehicle insurance for EVs, and across the board, has been a major contributor to inflation rising something like 20% when you look at the Consumer Price Index over the last 12 months,” Naikal said. “I’d like to hope we can shave a few points off of that while making people more comfortable switching to electrics.”

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OpenAI competitor Anthropic announces its most powerful AI yet

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OpenAI competitor Anthropic announces its most powerful AI yet

Jakub Porzycki | Nurphoto | Getty Images

OpenAI competitor Anthropic on Thursday announced Claude 3.5 Sonnet, its most powerful artificial intelligence model yet.

Claude is one of the chatbots that, like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google‘s Gemini, has exploded in popularity in the past year. Anthropic, which was founded by ex-OpenAI research executives, has backers including Google, Salesforce and Amazon. In the past year, it’s closed five different funding deals totaling about $7.3 billion.

The news follows Anthropic’s debut of its Claude 3 family of models in March and OpenAI’s GPT-4o in May. The company said Claude 3.5 Sonnet is faster than its previous leading model, Claude 3 Opus, and is the first model from Anthropic’s new Claude 3.5 family.

Claude 3.5 Sonnet

Claude 3.5 Sonnet is free from the company’s website, Claude.ai, and in the Claude iPhone app. Claude Pro and Team subscribers can access the latest model with higher rate limits.

“It shows marked improvement in grasping nuance, humor, and complex instructions, and is exceptional at writing high-quality content with a natural, relatable tone,” the company said in a blog post. It can also write, edit and execute code.

Anthropic also announced “Artifacts,” which it said allows a user to ask its Claude chatbot to, for example, generate a text document or code and then opens the result in a dedicated window. “This creates a dynamic workspace where they can see, edit, and build upon Claude’s creations in real-time,” the company said, adding that it expects Artifacts will be useful for code development, legal contract drafting and analysis, business report writing and more.

Claude Artifacts

As startups like Anthropic and OpenAI gain steam in the generative AI business, they — alongside tech giants like Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Meta — have been part of an AI arms race to integrate the technology to ensure they don’t fall behind in a market that’s predicted to top $1 trillion in revenue within a decade.

News of Anthropic’s new model follows the company’s debut in May of its first-ever enterprise offering.

The plan for businesses, dubbed Team, had been in development over the last few quarters and involved beta-testing with between 30 and 50 customers in industries such as technology, financial services, legal services and health care, Anthropic co-founder Daniela Amodei told CNBC in an interview last month. The idea for the service was partially borne out of many of those same customers asking for a dedicated enterprise product, Amodei added.

“So much of what we were hearing from enterprise businesses is people are kind of using Claude at the office already,” Amodei said at the time.

Last month, shortly after Anthropic’s new product debut, Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger joined the company as chief product officer. Krieger, the former chief technology officer of Meta-owned Instagram, grew the platform to 1 billion users and increased its engineering team to more than 450 people during his time there, per a release. OpenAI’s former safety leader Jan Leike also joined the company in May.

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