Mobile website builder Universe raises $10M from GV as it ventures into commerce

A startup that has framed itself as an Instagram for websites is now squaring up against Shopify as it nabs new funding from Google’s venture capital arm.

Brooklyn-based Universe has just closed a $10 million Series A from GV. The funding round was well in the works before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold stateside; nevertheless, CEO Joseph Cohen definitely sounded relieved to have everything signed.

“Hopefully, it’ll take some weight off their shoulders that may have been there otherwise,” said GV general partner M.G. Siegler, who led the deal and is taking a seat on their board.

When the team launched out of YC two years ago, the initial aim was to be the go-to short link for young people and creatives to stick in their Instagram bios. The mobile app allowed users to create very basic landing pages, allowing them to type up some text, toss up photos and arrange their creation across a couple of web pages.

As the startup matures and looks to home in on a more robust business model, they’re now looking to build an incredibly low-friction commerce platform. Users can add a shopping “block” to their site, add a photo, description and price and then start accepting orders.

“We’ve gone from a landing page builder to a full-fledged website builder,” Cohen told TechCrunch in an interview.

Universe is going after what Cohen calls “very small businesses.” This could be an artist selling prints, a yoga instructor charging for Zoom classes or one of their latest customers, a farmer selling live bait. “These are people who don’t work at desks,” Cohen says.

Shopify has been one of the biggest tech success stories of the past several years, but Cohen sees weaknesses for Universe to capitalize on. Shopify is “complex and not mobile-first,” he says. Universe not only doesn’t require a developer to implement, it doesn’t seem to require someone that’s particularly tech-savvy.

The price of simplicity for the end user is a hefty cut for Universe. At launch, the company isn’t taking a percentage for the first $1,000 of a customer’s revenue, but will take a 10% slice thereafter, a number that’s notably multiples higher than the rates of competitors.

Cohen acknowledges that if a business succeeds, this can be a significant expense for them, one that might push them to another platform. He say that he wants to figure out a model that can help his startup “grow and scale” with their customers, but he didn’t offer up any details on what that might look like.

The team is still working with free and paid “pro” tiers that offer advanced features like analytics. Commerce features will be available for both tiers.

Universe has raised $17 million to date. Other investors include Javelin Venture Partners, General Catalyst and Greylock Partners.

We chatted with GV’s M.G. Siegler about closing this deal and how his role as an investor has shifted since the current crisis took hold. You can read that interview on Extra Crunch.