E-commerce now accounts for 14% of all retail sales, and its growth has led to a rise in the fortunes of startups that build tools to enable businesses to sell online. In the latest development, a company called VTEX — which originally got its start in Latin America helping companies like Walmart expand their business to new markets with an end-to-end e-commerce service covering things like order and inventory management, front-end customer experience and customer service — has raised $140 million in funding, money it will be using to continue taking its business deeper into more international markets.
The investment is being led by SoftBank, specifically via its Latin American fund, with participation also from Gávea Investimentos and Constellation Asset Management. Previous investors include Riverwood and Naspers; Riverwood continues to be a backer, the company said.
Mariano Gomide, the CEO who co-founded VTEX with Geraldo Thomaz, said the valuation is not being disclosed, but he confirmed that the founders and founding team continue to hold more than 50% of the company. In addition to Walmart, VTEX customers include Levi’s, Sony, L’Oréal and Motorola . Annually, it processes some $2.4 billion in gross merchandise value across some 2,500 stores, growing 43% per year in the last five years.
VTEX is in that category of tech businesses that has been around for some time — it was founded in 1999 — but has largely been able to operate and grow off its own balance sheet. Before now, it had raised less than $13 million, according to PitchBook data.
This is one of the big rounds to come out of the relatively new SoftBank Innovation Fund, an effort dedicated to investing in tech companies focused on Latin America. The fund was announced earlier this year at $2 billion and has since expanded to $5 billion. Other Latin American companies that SoftBank has backed include online delivery business Rappi, lending platform Creditas and property tech startup QuintoAndar.
The common theme among many SoftBank investments is a focus on e-commerce in its many forms (whether that’s transactions for loans or to get a pizza delivered), and VTEX is positioned as a platform player that enables a lot of that to happen in the wider marketplace, providing not just the tools to build a front end, but to manage the inventory, ordering and customer relations at the back end.
“VTEX has three attributes that we believe will fuel the company’s success: a strong team culture, a best-in-class product and entrepreneurs with profitability mindset,” said Paulo Passoni, managing investment partner at SoftBank’s Latin America fund, in a statement. “Brands and retailers want reliability and the ability to test their own innovations. VTEX offers both, filling a gap in the market. With VTEX, companies get access to a proven, cloud-native platform with the flexibility to test add-ons in the same data layer.”
Although VTEX has been expanding into markets like the U.S. (where it acquired UniteU earlier this year), the company still makes some 80% of its revenues annually in Latin America, Gomide said in an interview.
There, it has been a key partner to retailers and brands interested in expanding into the region, providing integrations to localise storefronts, a platform to help brands manage customer and marketplace relations, and analytics, competing against the likes of SAP, Oracle, Adobe and Salesforce (but not, he said in answer to my question, Commercetools, which builds Shopify -style API tools for mid and large-sized enterprises and itself raised $145 million last month).
E-commerce, as we’ve pointed out, is a business of economies of scale. Case in point: While VTEX processes some $2.5 billion in transactions annually, it makes a relatively small return on that — $69 million, to be exact. This, plus the benefit of analytics on a wider set of big data (another economy of scale play), are two of the big reasons VTEX is now doubling down on growth in newer markets like Europe and North America. The company now has 122 integrations with localised payment methods.
“At the end of the day, e-commerce software is a combination of knowledge. If you don’t have access to thousands of global cases you can’t imbue the software with knowledge,” Gomide said. “Companies that have been focused on one specific region are now realising that trade is a global thing. China has proven that, so a lot of companies are now coming to us because their existing providers of e-commerce tools can’t ‘do international.’ ” There are very few companies that can serve that global approach and that is why we are betting on being a global commerce platform, not just one focused on Latin America.”
Founders First Capital Partners, an accelerator and investment firm which provides revenue-based financing to businesses led by “underrepresented entrepreneurs” operating in underserved markets, has received a $100 million commitment to expand its operations.
The San Diego-based investor raised the debt financing from Community Investment Management, a large debt-focused impact investment fund.
The revenue-based financing model is a new one that several startups are beginning to explore as a way to take non-dilutive capital for early stage businesses that might not qualify for traditional bank loans.
Companies like the new media startup, The Prepared, which offers tips on disaster preparedness, used revenue financing as a way to get its own business off the ground. And other companies are turning to the financing method too, according to investors from Lighter Capital.
At Founders First Capital Partners, the new financing will expand its lending operations to companies that are already generating between $1 million and $5 million in annual revenue.
The new program is set to launch in January 2020, expanding the firm’s footprint as a financial services firm for minority and other underrepresented founders, the company said in a statement.
The firm focuses on businesses led by people of color, women, and military veterans and concentrates on entrepreneurs whose business operate in low and middle-income communities outside of the traditional funding networks of Silicon Valley and New York, the company said.
It also operates an accelerator program for entrepreneurs that meet the same criteria.
“Founders First is very pleased to have secured such significant funding that allows us to expand our efforts to businesses that are led by underrepresented founders or those that serve underrepresented communities,” said Kim Folsom, co-founder and chief executive of Founders First, in a statement.
Revenue-based financing can in some cases be a better option for service-based, social impact companies, according to Jacob Haar, a managing partner with CIM, who previously worked at Minlam Investment Managemet, a hedge fund working in the micro-finance space.
Both microfinance and revenue-based financing come with risks — particularly around the rates that these lenders can charge for their financing.
But it is a unique opportunity to open up founders to additional types of financing models.
“CIM is excited to partner with Founders First to expand revenue-based financing to support underserved and underrepresented small business founders, including people of color, women, LGBTQ, and military veterans as well as small businesses located in low to moderate income areas,” Haar said in a statement. “We have found revenue-based financing to be a compelling alternative to venture capital and fixed payment loans as a forward-looking and structurally flexible investment to support business growth. We believe that Founders First’s unique advisory and revenue-based investment platform enables underrepresented small businesses to overcome systematic bias and achieve their potential.”
A commons tactic in both amateur and professional sports – and even in competitions as mundane as a casual board game night – is trash talk. But the negative effect of trash talk may have less to do with the skill of the repartee involved, and more with just the fact that it’s happening at all. A new study conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University suggests that even robots spitting out pretty lame pre-programmed insults can have a negative impact on human players.
CMU’s study involved programming one of SoftBank’s Pepper humanoid robots to deliver scorchers like “I have to say you are a terrible player” to a group of 40 participants, who were playing the robot in a game called “Guards and Treasures,” which is a version of a strategy game often used for studying rationality. During the course of the experiment, participants played 35 times against the robot – some getting bolstering, positive comments form the robot, while others were laden with negative criticism.
Both groups of participants improved at the game over time – but the ones getting derided by the bots didn’t score as highly as the group that was praised.
It’s pretty well-established that people excel when they receive encouragement from other – but that’s generally meant other humans. This study provides early evidence that people could get similar benefits from robotic companions – even ones that don’t look particularly human-like. The researchers still want to do more investigation into whether Pepper’s humanoid appearance affected the outcome, vs. say a featureless box or an industrial robot acting as the automaton opponent and doling out the same kind of feedback.
The results of this and related research could be hugely applicable to areas like at-home care, something companies including Toyota are pursuing to address the needs of an aging population. It could also come into play in automated training applications, both at work and in other settings like professional sports.
WeWork is reportedly being investigated by the New York State Attorney General. According to Reuters, the NYAG’s questions include if WeWork founder and former CEO Adam Neumann engaged in self-dealing.
A WeWork spokesperson said in an email that “we have received an inquiry from the office of the New York State Attorney General and are cooperating in the matter.” TechCrunch also contacted the New York State Attorney General’s office for comment. WeWork is headquartered in New York City.
This comes less than a week after Bloomberg reported WeWork is the subject of a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission inquiry into potential rule violations related to its cancelled IPO.
WeWork’s parent company, The We Company, announced on Sept. 30 that it was withdrawing its S-1 filing for an initial public offering, shortly after Neumann stepped down as CEO. In addition to questions about the company’s financial state, red flags for investors included that Neumann had borrowed against his WeWork shares and leased properties he owned back to the company.
An entity Neumann controlled also sold the company the right to use the word “We” for $5.9 million, though he later asked the company to unwind the agreement and returned the money after public criticism.
After receiving a lifeline from investor SoftBank worth up to $8 billion, WeWork is now engaging in major cost-cutting measures, including layoffs at Meetup, which it acquired for $200 million in 2017.
The good news: even if you have a small company and can’t afford a banker, you can synthetically and cheaply replicate one. That’s part of the value proposition of an institutional VC; I have been the (unpaid) investment banker for many of my portfolio companies.
If you don’t have relationships with potential investors, here’s how to replicate a banker:
Her job is to lead a professional outreach campaign to investors, writing highly customized emails to each based on your agreed-upon template. If you don’t have a pre-existing relationship, it is critical that you write emails which are palpably customized and of course well written, or else you’re just spamming.
The person doing outreach should have a title as senior as possible, e.g., “acting COO.” The higher the title, the higher the response rate she will generate. Any good business school will have dozens of current students who fit these criteria. She will get a lower response rate than you (with the CEO title), but likely a higher response rate than an outside banker who does not have an established relationship with the investor you are targeting. You can also have her impersonate you via email, although there’s always a risk of that ending in embarrassment if she is not highly responsible and trustworthy.
Raising capital is a time-consuming, arduous, complex task and you will be living with the consequences of your actions for decades. I recommend hiring a professional to help you, if you can afford it. I also recommend doing thorough research before hiring a banker. The wrong decision can cost you millions of dollars, in the form of a broken deal process, a suboptimal valuation, or inappropriate investors.
E-commerce continues to gain momentum — a trend we’ll see played out in the next two months of holiday shopping — and with that comes more consolidation. Today, Elavon, the payments company that is a subsidiary of US Bancorp, announced that it will acquire Sage Pay, one of the bigger payment processors in the UK and Ireland serving small and medium businesses.
Sage Pay’s owner Sage Group said the deal is being done for £232 million in cash (or $300 million at today’s currency rates).
Elavon is active in 10 countries and says it’s the fourth-largest merchant acquirer in Europe, competing against the likes of Global Payments, Vantiv, FIS, Ingenico, Verifone, Stripe, Chase, MasterCard and Visa. The deal is still subject to regulatory approval (both by the Federal Reserve in the US and the Central Bank of Ireland), and if all proceeds, the deal is expected to close in Q2 of 2020.
The acquisition points to a bigger trend underway in e-commerce. The market is very fragmented, not just in terms of the companies who sell goods online but also (and perhaps especially) in terms of the companies that manage the complexities at the back end.
In keeping with that, Sage Pay has a lot of competitors in its specific area of taking and managing the payments process for online retailers and others taking transactions online or via mobile apps. They include some of the same competitors as Elavon’s: newer entrants like Stripe, Adyen, and PayPal (all of which have extensive businesses covering many countries and are each larger than Sage, valued in the billions rather than hundreds of millions of dollars), but also smaller operations like GoCardless as well as more established companies like WorldPay.
This deal is a mark of the consolidation that’s been taking place to gain better economies of scale in a market where individual transactions generally generate incremental revenues.
Sage Pay, in that context, was a relatively small player. It 2018 revenues were £41 million, but it is profitable, with an operating profit of £15 million, and Sage said it expects “to report a statutory profit on disposal of approximately £180 million on completion.”
The deal comes on the heels of Sage Group — which is publicly traded — confirming reports in September that it was looking for strategic alternatives for the payments business. Sage Group for the last couple of years has been divesting payments and banking assets to focus more on accounting, people and payroll software, which it sells through an SaaS model.
“Our vision of becoming a great SaaS company for customers and colleagues alike means we will continue to focus on serving small and medium sized customers with subscription software solutions for Accounting & Financials and People & Payroll,” said Steve Hare, Sage’s CEO, in a statement. “Payments and banking services remain an integral part of Sage’s value proposition and we will deliver them through our growing network of partnerships, including Elavon.”
Elavon, as the consolidator here, was itself acquired by US Bancorp way back in 2001 for $2.1 billion. Currently it is active in 10 countries, but in that same vein of consolidation to improve economies of scale on the technical side, and to aggregate more incremental transactions on the financial side, Elavon’s main objective is to increase its overall share of the e-commerce market in Europe. specifically by expanding with Sage Pay further into the UK and Ireland.
“We are a customer-focused company that is helping businesses succeed in a global marketplace that is changing rapidly,” said Hannah Fitzsimons, president and general manager of Elavon Merchant Services, Europe. “This acquisition brings tremendous talent and leading technology to Elavon, which can be leveraged across the European market.”
Africa-focused fintech startup OPay has raised a $120 million Series B round backed by Chinese investors.
Located in Lagos and founded by consumer internet company Opera, OPay will use the funds to scale in Nigeria and expand its payments product to Kenya, Ghana and South Africa — Opera’s CFO Frode Jacobsen confirmed to TechCrunch.
OPay’s $120 million round comes after the startup raised $50 million in June. It also follows Visa’s $200 million investment in Nigerian fintech company Interswitch and a $40 million raise by Lagos-based payments startup PalmPay — led by China’s Transsion.
There are a couple of quick takeaways. Nigeria has become the epicenter for fintech VC and expansion in Africa. And Chinese investors have made an unmistakable pivot to African tech.
Opera’s activity on the continent represents both trends. The Norway-based, Chinese-owned (majority) company founded OPay in 2018 on the popularity of its internet search engine.
Opera’s web-browser has ranked No. 2 in usage in Africa, after Chrome, the last four years.
The company has built a hefty suite of internet-based commercial products in Nigeria around OPay’s financial utility. These include motorcycle ride-hail app ORide, OFood delivery service and OLeads SME marketing and advertising vertical.
“OPay will facilitate the people in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya and other African countries with the best fintech ecosystem. We see ourselves as a key contributor to…helping local businesses…thrive from…digital business models,” Opera CEO and OPay Chairman Yahui Zhou, said in a statement.
Opera CFO Frode Jacobsen shed additional light on how OPay will deploy the $120 million across Opera’s Africa network. OPay looks to capture volume around bill payments and airtime purchases, but not necessarily as priority. “That’s not something you do every day. We want to focus our services on things that have high-frequency usage,” said Jacobsen.
Those include transportation services, food services and other types of daily activities, he explained. Jacobsen also noted OPay will use the $120 million to enter more countries in Africa than those disclosed.
Since its Series A raise, OPay in Nigeria has scaled to 140,000 active agents and $10 million in daily transaction volume, according to company stats.
Beyond standing out as another huge funding round, OPay’s $120 million VC raise has significance for Africa’s tech ecosystem on multiple levels.
It marks 2019 as the year Chinese investors went all in on the continent’s startup scene. OPay, PalmPay and East African trucking logistics company Lori Systems have raised a combined $240 million from 15 different Chinese actors in a span of months.
OPay’s funding and expansion plans are also a harbinger for fierce, cross-border fintech competition in Africa’s digital finance space. Parallel events to watch for include Interswitch’s imminent IPO, e-commerce venture Jumia’s shift to digital finance and WhatsApp’s likely entry in African payments.
The continent’s 1.2 billion people represent the largest share of the world’s unbanked and underbanked population — which makes fintech Africa’s most promising digital sector. But it’s becoming a notably crowded sector, where startup attrition and failure will certainly come into play.
And not to be overlooked is how OPay’s capital raise moves Opera toward becoming a multi-service commercial internet platform in Africa.
This places OPay and its Opera-supported suite of products on a competitive footing with other ride-hail, food delivery and payments startups across the continent. That means inevitable competition between Opera and Africa’s largest multi-service internet company, Jumia.
SoftBank Corp. announced today that it has reached an agreement to merge with Z Holdings (the SoftBank subsidiary formerly known as Yahoo Japan) and Line Corp., in a move they hope will better position them against competitors. The merger, which was first reported by Nikkei last week, is expected to be completed in October 2020.
SoftBank and Naver, the owner of Line, will each hold 50% of a new holding company that will operate Line and Z Holdings. By uniting, SoftBank and Naver hope that they will better position search portal Yahoo Japan, Line’s messaging app and their other businesses to compete against rivals from the United States and China.
In its announcement, SoftBank said “in the Internet market, overseas companies, especially those based in the United States and China, are overwhelmingly dominant, and even when comparing the size of operations, there is currently a big difference between such overseas companies and those in other Asian countries, other than China.”
Line is one of the most popular messaging apps in Japan, Taiwan and Thailand, but has struggled to compete in other markets, despite offering a wide array of services that includes Line Pay, Line Taxi and Line Music. Yahoo Japan is one of the country’s biggest search engines, but it competes with Google, and its other businesses, including e-commerce, are up against rivals like Rakuten and Alibaba.
Once merged, SoftBank and Naver say cooperation between their subsidiaries and investment portfolio companies will enable them to make more advances in artificial intelligence and other areas, including search, advertising and payment and financial services.
The merger would entail taking Line private by acquiring all outstanding Line shares, options and convertible bonds. The tender offer for Line’s remaining shares will be 5,200 yen, a 13.41% premium over the closing price of Line’s common shares, listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, on November 13, before reports came out about the potential merger.
It was the one of the best phishing emails we’ve seen… that wasn’t.
Phishing remains one of the most popular attack choices for scammers. Phishing emails are designed to impersonate companies or executives to trick users into turning over sensitive information, typically usernames and passwords, so that scammers can log into online services and steal money or data. But detecting and preventing phishing isn’t just a user problem — it’s a corporate problem too, especially when companies don’t take basic cybersecurity precautions and best practices to hinder scammers from ever getting into a user’s inbox.
Enter TriNet, a human resources giant, which this week became the poster child for how how to make a genuine email to its customers look inadvertently as suspicious as it gets.
Remote employees at companies across the U.S. who rely on TriNet for access to outsourced human resources, like their healthcare benefits and workplace policies, were sent an email this week as part of an effort to keep employees “informed and up-to-date on the labor and employment laws that affect you.”
Workers at one Los Angeles-based health startup that manages its employee benefits through TriNet all got the email at the same time. But one employee wasn’t convinced it was a real email, and forwarded it — and its source code — to TechCrunch.
TriNet is one of the largest outsourced human resources providers in the United States, primarily for small-to-medium-sized businesses that may not have the funding to hire dedicated human resources staff. And this time of year is critical for companies that rely on TriNet, since health insurance plans are entering open enrollment and tax season is only a few weeks away. With benefit changes to consider, it’s not unusual for employees to receive a rash of TriNet-related emails towards the end of the year.
But this email didn’t look right. In fact when we looked under the hood of the email, everything about it looked suspicious.
This is the email that remote workers received. TriNet said the use of an Imgur-hosted image in the email was “mistakenly” used. (Image: TechCrunch/supplied)
We looked at the source code of the email, including its headers. These email headers are like an envelope — they say where an email came from, who it’s addressed to, how it was routed, and if there were any complications along the way, such as being marked as spam.
There were more red flags than we could count.
Chief among the issues were that the TriNet logo in the email was hosted on Imgur, a free image-hosting and meme-sharing site, and not the company’s own website. That’s a common technique among phishing attackers — they use Imgur to host images they use in their spam emails to avoid detection. Since the image was uploaded in July, that logo was viewed more than 70,000 times until we reached out to TriNet, which removed the image, suggesting thousands of TriNet customers had received one of these emails. And, although the email contained a link to a TriNet website, the page that loaded had an entirely different domain with nothing on it to suggest it was a real TriNet-authorized site besides a logo, which if it were a phishing site could’ve been easily spoofed.
Fearing that somehow scammers had sent out a phishing email to potentially thousands of TriNet customers, we reached out to security researcher John Wethington, founder of security firm Condition:Black, to examine the email.
It turns out he was just as convinced as us that the email may have been fake.
“As hackers and self-proclaimed social engineers, we often think that spotting a phishing email is ‘easy’,” said Wethington. “The truth is it’s hard.”
“When we first examined the email every alarm bell was going off. The deeper we dug into it the more confusing things became. We looked at the domain name records, the site’s source code, and even the webpage hashes,” he said.
There was nothing, he said, that gave us “100% confidence” that the site was genuine until we contacted TriNet.
TriNet spokesperson Renee Brotherton confirmed to TechCrunch that the email campaign was legitimate, and that it uses the third-party site “for our compliance ePoster service offering. She added: “The Imgur image you reference is an image of the TriNet logo that Poster Elite mistakenly pointed to and it has since been removed.”
“The email you referenced was sent to all employees who do not go into an employer’s physical workspace to ensure their access to required notices,” said TriNet’s spokesperson.
When reached, Poster Elite also confirmed the email was legitimate.
This is not a phishing site, but it sure looks like one. (Image: TechCrunch)
How did TriNet get this so wrong? This culmination of errors had some who received the email worried that their information might have been breached.
“When companies communicate with customers in ways that are similar to the way scammers communicate, it can weaken their customer’s ability over time to spot and shut down security threats in future communications,” said Rachel Tobac, a hacker, social engineer, and founder of SocialProof Security.
Tobac pointed to two examples of where TriNet got it wrong. First, it’s easy for hackers to send spoofed emails to TriNet’s workers because TriNet’s DMARC policy on its domain name is not enforced.
Second, the inconsistent use of domain names is confusing for the user. TriNet confirmed that it pointed the link in the email —
posters.trinet.com — to
eposterservice.com, which hosts the company’s compliance posters for remote workers. TriNet thought that forwarding the domain would suffice, but instead we thought someone had hijacked TriNet’s domain name settings — a type of attack that’s on the increase, though primarily carried out by state actors. TriNet is a huge target — it stores workers’ benefits, pay details, tax information and more. We had assumed the worst.
“This is similar to an issue we see with banking fraud phone communications,” said Tobac. “Spammers call bank customers, spoof the bank’s number, and pose as the bank to get customers to give account details to ‘verify their account’ before ‘hearing about the fraud the bank noticed on their account — which, of course, is an attack,” she said.
“This is surprisingly exactly what the legitimate phone call sounds like when the bank is truly calling to verify fraudulent transactions,” Tobac said.
Wethington noted that other suspicious indicators were all techniques used by scammers in phishing attacks. The
posters.trinet.com subdomain used in the email was only set up a few weeks ago, and the
eposterservice.com domain it pointed to used an HTTPS certificate that wasn’t associated with either TriNet or Poster Elite.
These all point to one overarching problem. TriNet may have sent out a legitimate email but everything about it looked problematic.
On one hand, being vigilant about incoming emails is a good thing. And while it’s a cat-and-mouse game to evade phishing attacks, there are things that companies can do to proactively protect themselves and their customers from scams and phishing attacks. And yet TriNet failed in almost every way by opening itself up to attacks by not employing these basic security measures.
“It’s hard to distinguish the good from the bad even with proper training, and when in doubt I recommend you throw it out,” said Wethington.
SoftBank’s Vision Fund has single-handedly changed the game when it comes to tech startup investment. And that’s why I’m excited to announce that SoftBank Vision Fund investment director Carolina Brochado is joining us at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.
Carolina Brochado isn’t a newcomer when it comes to VC investment. She’s worked for years at Atomico in London. Originally from Brazil, she first joined Atomico as an intern in 2012 while studying her MBA at Columbia Business School.
After her MBA, she joined an e-commerce startup as head of operations. Unfortunately, that startup is now defunct. But she used that opportunity to join Atomico once again, as a principle. She became a partner at Atomico in 2016 and left the firm late last year.
At SoftBank’s Vision Fund, she focuses on fintech, digital health and marketplace startups. Just to give you an idea, some of her past investments with both Atomico and SoftBank include LendInvest, Gympass, Hinge Health, Ontruck and Rekki.
More generally, given the size of SoftBank’s Vision Fund ($100 billion), it has had a huge impact on the growth trajectory of some companies. I’m personally curious to know SoftBank’s approach as board members, whether they get involved in the strategy of those companies or let the executive teams make decisions on their own.
Buy your ticket to Disrupt Berlin to listen to this discussion and many others. The conference will take place on December 11-12.
In addition to panels and fireside chats, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield to compete for the highly coveted Battlefield Cup.
Carolina focuses on fintech, digital health and marketplaces. Prior to joining Softbank, Carolina was a Partner at Atomico, where she sourced and collaborated with portfolio companies for almost five years. Some of her investments included Lendinvest, Gympass, Hinge Health, Ontruck and Rekki.
Previously Carolina has worked as Head of Ops to a now defunct gifting e-commerce start-up, as an investor at Chicago-based private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners and within Consumer/Retail Investment Banking at Merrill Lynch in New York.
Carolina has a Bachelor of Science degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and an MBA from Columbia Business School. She is originally from Brazil.
A UK PR firm pitching to run an account for Ola has proposed running a campaign to politicize ride-hailing as a tactic to shift regulations in its favor.
The approach suggests that, despite the appearance of ride-hailing platforms taking a more conciliatory position with regulators that are now wise to earlier startup tactics in this space, there remains a calculus involving realpolitik, propaganda and high-level lobbying between companies that want to enter or expand in markets, and those who hold the golden tickets to do so.
In 2017 Estonia-based ride-hailing startup Taxify tried to launch in London ahead of regulatory approval, for example, but city authorities clamped down straight away. It was only able to return to the UK capital 21 months later (now known as Bolt).
In Western markets ride-hailing companies are facing old and new regulatory roadblocks that are driving up costs and creating barriers to growth. In some instances unfavorable rule changes have even led companies to pull out of cities or regions all together. Even as there are ongoing questions around the employment classification of the drivers these platforms depend on to deliver a service.
The PR pitch, made by a Tufton Street-based PR firm called Public First, suggests Ola tackle legislative friction in UK regions with a policy influence campaign targeted at local voters.
The SoftBank-backed Indian ride-hailing startup launched in the U.K. in August, 2018 and currently offers services in a handful of regional locations including South Wales, Merseyside and the West Midlands. Most recently it gained a licence to operate in London, and last month launched services in Coventry and Warwick — saying then that passengers in the UK had clocked up more than one million trips since its launch.
Manchester is also on its target list — and features as a focus in the strategy proposal — though an Ola spokesman told us it has no launch date for the city yet. The company met with Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, during a trade mission to India last month.
— Leena Paul (@leenavittal) October 9, 2019
The Public First proposal suggests a range of strategies for Ola to get local authorities and local politicians on-side, and thus avoid problems in potential and future operations, including the use of engagement campaigns and digital targeting to mobilize select coalitions around politicized, self-serving talking points — such as claims that public transport is less safe and convenient; or that air quality improves if fewer people drive into the city — in order to generate pressure on regulators to change licensing rules.
Another suggestion is to position the company less as a business, and more as an organization representing tens of thousands of time-poor people.
Public First advocates generally for the use of data- and technology-driven campaign methods, such as microtargeted digital advertising, as more effective than direct lobbying of local government officials — suggesting using digital tools to generate a perception that an issue is politicized will encourage elected representatives to do the heavy lifting of pressuring regulators because they’ll be concerned about losing votes.
The firm describes digital campaign elements as “crucial” to this strategy.
“Through a small, targeted online digital advertising campaign in both cities, local councillors’ email inboxes would begin to fill with requests from a number of different people (students, businesses, and other members of [a commuter advocacy group it proposes setting up to act as a lobby vehicle]) for the local authority to change its approach on local taxi licensing — in effect, to make it easier for Ola to launch,” it offers as a proposed strategy for building momentum behind Ola in Manchester and Liverpool.
Public First confirmed it made the pitch to Ola but told us: “This was merely a routine, speculative proposal of the sort we generate all the time as we meet people.”
“Ola Cabs has no relationship whatsoever with Public First,” it added.
A spokesperson for Ola also confirmed that it does not have a business relationship with Public First. “Ola has never had a relationship with Public First, does not currently have one and nor will it in the future,” the spokesman told us.
“Ola’s approach in the UK has been defined by working closely and collaborating with local authorities and we are committed to being fully licensed in every area we operate,” he added, suggesting the strategy it’s applying is the opposite of what’s being proposed.
We understand that prior to Public First pitching their ideas to a person working in Ola’s comms division, Ola’s director of legal, compliance and regulation, Andrew Winterton, met with the firm over coffee — in an introductory capacity. But that no such tactics were discussed.
It appears that, following first contact, Public First took the initiative to draw up the strategy suggesting politicizing ride-hailing in key target regions which it emailed to Winterton but only presented to a more junior Ola employee in a follow-up meeting the legal director did not attend.
Ola has built a major ride-hailing business in its home market of India — by way of $3.8BN in funding and aggressive competition. Since 2018 it has been taking international steps to fuel additional growth. In the U.K. its approach to date has been fairly low key, going to cities and regional centers outside of high-profile London first, as well as aiming to serve areas with big Indian populations to help recruit riders and drivers.
It’s a strategy that’s likely been informed by being able to view the track record of existing ride-hailing players — and avoid Uber-style regulatory blunders.
The tech giant was dealt a major shock by London’s transport regulator in 2017, when TfL denied it a licence renewal — citing concerns over Uber’s approach to passenger safety and corporate governance, including querying its explanation for using proprietary software that could be used to evade regulatory oversight.
The Uber story looks to be the high water mark for blitzscaling startup tactics that relied on ignoring or brute forcing regulators in the ride-hailing category. Laws and local authorities have largely caught up. The name of the game now is finding ways to get regulators on side.
The fact that strategic proposals such as Public First’s to Ola are considered routine enough to put into a speculative pitch is interesting, given how the lack of transparency around the use of online tools for spreading propaganda is an issue that’s now troubling elected representatives in parliaments all over the world. Tools such as those offered by Facebook’s ad platform.
In Facebook’s case the company provides only limited visibility into who is running political and issue-based ads on its platform. The targeting criteria being used to reach individuals is also not comprehensively disclosed.
Some of the company’s own employees recently went public with concerns that its advanced targeting and behavioral-tracking tools make it “hard for people in the electorate to participate in the public scrutiny that we’re saying comes along with political speech”, as they put it.
At the same time, platforms providing a conduit for corporate interests to cheaply and easily manufacture ‘politicized’ speech looks to be another under-scrutinized risk for democratic societies.
Among the services Public First lists on its website are “policy development”, “qualitative and quantitative opinion research”, “issues-based campaigns”, “coalition-building” and “war gaming”. (Here, for example, is a piece of work the firm carried out for Google — where its analysis-for-hire results in a puffy claim that the tech giant’s digital services are worth at least $70BN in annual “economic value” for the UK.)
Public First’s choice of office location, in Tufton Street, London, is also notable as the area is home to an interlinked hub of right-leaning think tanks, such as the free market Center for Policy Studies and pro-Brexit Initiative for Free Trade. These are lobby vehicles dressed up as policy wonks which put out narratives intended to influence public opinion and legislation in a particular direction without it being clear who their financial backers are.
Some of the publicity strategies involved in this kind of work appear to share similarities with tactics used by Big Tobacco to lobby against anti-smoking legislation, or fossil fuel interests’ funding of disinformation and astroturfing operations to create a perception of doubt around consensus climate science.
“A lot of what used to get sold in this space essentially was access [to policymakers],” says one former public relations professional, speaking on background. “What you’re seeing an increasingly amount of now is the ‘technification’ of that process. Everyone’s using those kinds of tools — clearly in terms of trying to understand public sentiment better and that kind of thing… But essentially what they’re saying is we can set up a set of politicized issues so that they can benefit you. And that’s an interesting change. It’s not just straight defence and attack; promote your brand vs another. It’s ‘okay, we’re going to change the politics around an issue… in order to benefit your outcome’. And that’s fairly sophisticated and interesting.”
Mat Hope, editor of investigative journalism outlet DeSmog — which reports on climate-related misinformation campaigns — has done a lot of work focused on Tufton Street specifically, looking at the impact the network’s ‘policy-costumed’ corporate talking points have had on UK democracy.
“There is a set of organisations based out of offices in and around 55 Tufton Street in Westminster, just around the corner from the Houses of Parliament, which in recent years have had an outsized impact on British democracy. Many of the groups were at the forefront of the Leave campaign, and are now pushing for a hard or no-deal Brexit,” he told us, noting that Public First not only has offices nearby but that its founders and employees “have strong ties to other organisations based there”.
“The groups regularly lobby politicians in the interests of specific companies or big industry through the guise of grassroots or for-the-people campaigns,” he added. “One way they do this is through targeting adverts or social media posts, using groups with benign sounding names. This makes it hard to trace the campaign back to any particular company, and gives the issue an impression of grassroots support that is, on the whole, artificial.”
Ad platforms such as Facebook which profit by profiling people offer cheap yet powerful tools for corporate interests to identify and target highly specific sub-sets of voters. This is possible thanks to the vast amounts of personal data they collect — an activity that’s finally coming under significant regulatory scrutiny — and custom ad tools such as lookalike audiences, all of which enables behavioral microtargeting at the individual user/voter level.
Lookalike audiences is a powerful ad product that allows Facebook advertisers to upload customer data yet also leverage the company’s pervasive people-profiling to access new audiences that they do not hold data on but who have similar characteristics to their target. These so-called lookalike audiences can be tightly geotargeted, as well as zeroed in on granular interests and demographics. It’s not hard to see how such tools can be applied to selectively hit up only the voters most likely to align with a business’ interests.
The upshot is that an online advertiser is able to pay little to tap into the population-scale reach and vast data wealth of platform giants — turning firehose power against individual voters who they deem — via focus group work or other voter data analysis — to be aligned with a corporate agenda. The platform becomes a propaganda machine for manufacturing the appearance of broad public engagement and grassroots advocacy for a self-interested policy change.
The target voter, meanwhile, is most likely none the wiser about why they’re seeing politicized messaging. It’s that lack of transparency that makes the activity inherently anti-democratic.
The UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee raised Facebook’s lookalike audiences as a risk to democracy during a recent enquiry into online disinformation and digital campaigning. It went on to recommend an outright ban on political microtargeting to lookalike audiences online. Though the UK government has so far failed to act on that or its fuller suite of recommendations. (Nor has Facebook responded to increasingly loud calls from politicians and civic society to ban political and issue ads altogether.)
Even a code of conduct published by the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) emphasizes transparency — with member organizations committing to “be open and transparent in declaring their name, organisation and the interest they represent”. (Albeit, the IPRA’s member list is not itself public.)
While online targeting of social media users remains a major problem for democracies, on account of the lack of transparency and individual consent to targeting (or, indeed, to data-based profiling), in recent years we’ve also seen more direct efforts by companies to use their own technology tools to generate voter pressure.
Examples such as ride-hailing giant Uber which, under its founding CEO, Travis Kalanick, became well known for a ‘push button’ approach to mobilizing its user base by sending calls to action to lobby against unfavorable regulatory changes.
Airbnb has also sought to use its platform-reach to beat against local authority rule changes that threaten its ‘home sharing’ business model.
However it’s the opaque tech-fuelled targeting enabled by ad platforms like Facebook that’s far more problematic for democracies as it allows vested interests to generate self-interested pressure remotely — including from abroad — while remaining entirely shielded from view.
Fixing this will require regulatory muscle to enforce existing laws around personal data collection (at least where such laws exist) — and doing so in a way that prevents microtargeting from being the cheap advertising default. Democracies should not allow their citizens to be mirrored in the data because it sets them up to be hollowed out; their individuals aggregated, classified and repackaged as all-you-can-eat attention units for whoever is paying.
And likely also legislation to set firm boundaries around the use of political and campaigning/issue ads online. Turning platform power against the individual is inherently asymmetrical. It’s never going to be a fair fight. So fair ground rules for digital political campaigning — and a proper oversight regime to enforce them — are absolutely essential.
Another democratic tonic is transparency. Which means raising awareness about tech-fuelled tactics that are designed to generate and exploit data-based asymmetries in order to hack and manipulate public opinion. Such skewed stuff only really works when the target is oblivious to what’s afoot. In that respect, every little disclosure of these ‘dark arts’ and the platforms that enable them provides a much-needed counter boost for critical thinking and democracy.
One of the bigger trends in enterprise software has been the emergence of startups building tools to make the benefits of artificial intelligence technology more accessible to non-tech companies. Today, one that has built a platform to apply power of machine learning and natural language processing to massive documents of unstructured data has closed a round of funding as it finds strong demand for its approach.
Eigen Technologies, a London-based startup whose machine learning engine helps banks and other businesses that need to extract information and insights from large and complex documents like contracts, is today announcing that it has raised $37 million in funding, a Series B that values the company at around $150 million – $180 million.
Eigen today is working primarily in the financial sector — its offices are smack in the middle of The City, London’s financial center — but the plan is to use the funding to continue expanding the scope of the platform to cover other verticals such as insurance and healthcare, two other big areas that deal in large, wordy documentation that is often inconsistent in how its presented, full of essential fine print, and is typically a strain on an organisation’s resources to be handled correctly, and is often a disaster if it is not.
The focus up to now on banks and other financial businesses has had a lot of traction. It says its customer base now includes 25% of the world’s G-SIB institutions (that is, the world’s biggest banks), along with others who work closely with them like Allen & Overy and Deloitte. Since June 2018 (when it closed its Series A round), Eigen has seen recurring revenues grow sixfold with headcount — mostly data scientists and engineers — double. While Eigen doesn’t disclose specific financials, you can the growth direction that contributed to the company’s valuation.
The basic idea behind Eigen is that it focuses what co-founder and CEO Lewis Liu describes as “small data”. The company has devised a way to “teach” an AI to read a specific kind of document — say, a loan contract — by looking at a couple of examples and training on these. The whole process is relatively easy to do for a non-technical person: you figure out what you want to look for and analyse, find the examples using basic search in two or three documents, and create the template which can then be used across hundreds or thousands of the same kind of documents (in this case, a loan contract).
Eigen’s work is notable for two reasons. First, typically machine learning and training and AI requires hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of examples to “teach” a system before it can make decisions that you hope will mimic those of a human. Eigen requires a couple of examples (hence the “small data” approach).
Second, an industry like finance has many pieces of sensitive data (either because its personal data, or because it’s proprietary to a company and its business), and so there is an ongoing issue of working with AI companies that want to “anonymise” and ingest that data. Companies simply don’t want to do that. Eigen’s system essentially only works on what a company provides, and that stays with the company.
Eigen was founded in 2014 by Dr. Lewis Z. Liu (CEO) and Jonathan Feuer (a managing partner at CVC Capital technologies who is the company’s chairman), but its earliest origins go back 15 years earlier, when Liu — a first-generation immigrant who grew up in the US — was working as a “data entry monkey” (his words) at a tire manufacturing plant in New Jersey, where he lived, ahead of starting university at Harvard.
A natural computing whizz who found himself building his own games when his parents refused to buy him a games console, he figured out that the many pages of printouts that he was reading and re-entering into a different computing system could be sped up with a computer program linking up the two. “I put myself out of a job,” he joked.
His educational life epitomises the kind of lateral thinking that often produces the most interesting ideas. Liu went on to Harvard to study not computer science, but physics and art. Doing a double major required working on a thesis that merged the two disciplines together, and Liu built “electrodynamic equations that composed graphical structures on the fly” — basically generating art using algorithms — which he then turned into a “Turing test” to see if people could detect pixelated actual work with that of his program. Distil this, and Liu was still thinking about patterns in analog material that could be re-created using math.
Then came years at McKinsey in London (how he arrived on these shores) during the financial crisis where the results of people either intentionally or mistakenly overlooking crucial text-based data produced stark and catastrophic results. “I would say the problem that we eventually started to solve for at Eigen became for tangible,” Liu said.
Then came a physics PhD at Oxford where Liu worked on X-ray lasers that could be used to bring down the complexity and cost of making microchips, cancer treatments and other applications.
While Eigen doesn’t actually use lasers, some of the mathematical equations that Liu came up with for these have also become a part of Eigen’s approach.
“The whole idea [for my PhD] was, ‘how do we make this cheeper and more scalable?'” he said. “We built a new class of X-ray laser apparatus, and we realised the same equations could be used in pattern matching algorithms, specifically around sequential patterns. And out of that, and my existing corporate relationships, that’s how Eigen started.”
Five years on, Eigen has added a lot more into the platform beyond what came from Liu’s original ideas. There are more data scientists and engineers building the engine around the basic idea, and customising it to work with more sectors beyond finance.
There are a number of AI companies building tools for non-technical business end-users, and one of the areas that comes close to what Eigen is doing is robotic process automation, or RPA. Liu notes that while this is an important area, it’s more about reading forms more readily and providing insights to those. The focus of Eigen in more on unstructured data, and the ability to parse it quickly and securely using just a few samples.
Liu points to companies like IBM (with Watson) as general competitors, while startups like Luminance is another taking a similar approach to Eigen by addressing the issue of parsing unstructured data in a specific sector (in its case, currently, the legal profession).
Stephen Nundy, a partner and the CTO of Lakestar, said that he first came into contact with Eigen when he was at Goldman Sachs, where he was a managing director overseeing technology, and the bank engaged it for work.
“To see what these guys can deliver, it’s to be applauded,” he said. “They’re not just picking out names and addresses. We’re talking deep, semantic understanding. Other vendors are trying to be everything to everybody, but Eigen has found market fit in financial services use cases, and it stands up against the competition. You can see when a winner is breaking away from the pack and it’s a great signal for the future.”
Google is the latest big tech company to make a move into banking and personal financial services: The company is gearing up to offer checking accounts to consumers, as first reported by The Wall Street Journal, starting as early as next year. Google is calling the project “Cache,” and it’ll partner with banks and credit unions to offer the checking accounts, with the banks handling all financial and compliance activities related to the accounts.
Google’s Caesar Sengupta spoke to the WSJ about the new initiative, and Sengupta made clear that Google will be seeking to put its financial institution partners much more front-and-center for its customers than other tech companies have perhaps done with their financial products. Apple works with Goldman Sachs on its Apple Card credit product, for instance, but the credit card is definitely pretend primarily as an Apple product.
So why even bother getting into this game if it’s leaving a lot of the actual banking to traditional financial institutions? Well, Google obviously stands to gain a lot of valuable information and insight on customer behavior with access to their checking account, which for many is a good picture of overall day-to-day financial life. Google says it’s also intending to offer product advantages for both consumers and banks, including things like loyalty programs, on top of the basic financial services. It’s also still considering whether or not it’ll charge service fees, per Segupta – not doing so would definitely be and advantage over most existing checking accounts available.
Google already offers Google Pay, and its Google Wallet product has hosted some features beyond simple payments tracking, including the ability to send money between individuals. Meanwhile, rivals including Apple have also introducing payment products, and Apple of course recently expanded into the credit market with Apple Card. Facebook also introduced its own digital payment product earlier this week, and earlier this year announced its intent to build its own digital currency called ‘Libra’ along with partners.
The initial financial partners that Google is working with include Citigroup and Stanford Federal Credit Union, and their motivation per the WSJ piece appears to be seeking out and attracting younger and more digital-savvy customers who are increasingly looking to handle more of their lives through online tools. Per Sengupta’s comments, they’ll also benefit from Google’s ability to work with large sets of data and turn those into value-add products, but the Google exec also said the tech company doesn’t sue Google Pay data for advertising, nor does it share that data with advertisers. Still, convincing people to give Google access to this potentially sensitive area of their lives might be an uphill battle, especially given the current political and social climate around big tech.
XPeng Motors, the Chinese electric vehicle startup backed by Alibaba and Foxconn, has raised a fresh injection of $400 million in capital and has taken on Xiaomi as a strategic investor, the company announced.
The Series C includes an unidentified group of strategic and institutional investors. XPeng Motors chairman and CEO He Xiaopeng, who also participated in the Series C, said they received strong support from many of its current shareholders. Xiaomi founder and CEO Lei Jun previously invested in the company.
“Xiaomi Corporation and Xpeng Motors have achieved significant progress through in-depth collaboration in developing technologies connecting smart phones and smart cars,” Xiaomi’s Jun said in a statement. “We believe that this strategic investment will further deepen our partnership with Xpeng in advancing innovation for intelligent hardware and the Internet of Things.”
The company didn’t disclose what its post-money valuation is now. However, a source familiar with the deal said it is “better” than the 25 billion yuan valuation it had in its last round in August 2018.
The announcement confirms an earlier report from Reuters that cited anonymous sources.
XPeng also said it has garnered “several billions” in Chinese yuan of unsecured credit lines from institutions such as China Merchants Bank, China CITIC Bank and HSBC. XPeng didn’t elaborate when asked what “several billions” means.
Brian Gu, XPeng Motors vice chairman and president, added that the company has been able to hit most of its business and financing targets despite economic headwinds, uncertainties in the global markets and government policy changes that have had direct impact on overall auto sales in China.
The round comes as XPeng prepares to launch its electric P7 sedan in spring 2020. Deliveries of the P7 are expected to begin in the second quarter of 2020.
XPeng began deliveries of its first production model, the G3 2019 SUV, in December, and shipped 10,000 models by mid-June. The company has since released an enhanced version of the G3 with a 520 km NEDC driving range.
XPeng has said it wants to IPO, but it’s unclear when the company might file to become a public company. No specific IPO timetable has been set and a spokesperson said the company is monitoring market conditions closely, but its current focus is on building core businesses.
Recently reelected, Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced a desire to move the nation’s capital from Jakarta to the East Kalimantan region, citing environmental concerns, the most exigent of these being the fact that Jakarta is literally sinking due to the uncontrolled extraction of groundwater. Widodo said he wished to separate Indonesia’s government from its business and economic hub in Jakarta.
However, what would a move from Jakarta do to Indonesia’s burgeoning startup economy?
According to Widodo, studies have determined that the best site for the proposed new capital is between North Penajam Paser and Kutai Kertanegara, both located in East Kalimantan. The basis of this selection is due to studies highlighting the region’s relative protection from natural disasters, especially when compared to other regions. This would definitely be a benefit for the governmental heart of Indonesia, ensuring continuous administrative functions in a disaster-prone region. Other governments have separated administrative centers from their economic hubs with varying degrees of success, with some examples being Brazil’s creation of Brasília, as well as Korea’s projected move from Seoul to Sejong.
What is most interesting to note from prior examples is that these newer branched-out cities are non-surprisingly, heavily government-centric. In Brasília, roles tied to the government make up nearly 40% of all jobs, while in Sejong, a lack of facilities like public transit and commercial mall space cause many to commute into Sejong for government work, instead of permanently settling in the area. Given the semi-undeveloped nature of East Kalimantan, these anecdotes are quite troubling if the government is actually moving to North Penajam Paser or Kutai Kertanegara.
These facts raise the question of economic impacts of such governmental moves. In fact, one may even opine that while these moves do allow for governmental growth, ultimately, they may hurt the country economically due to a divestment between both government and economic hubs. In this specific instance, it is most important to analyze the impact of such a move on Indonesia’s startup economy, as the nation is one the world’s leaders in startup growth.
Indonesia has emerged as a startup hub within Southeast Asia in recent years, with its population of over 260 million marking it as the world’s fourth-most populous country. Additionally, Indonesia’s mobile-first population has enabled the full embrace of the internet era, with 95% of all internet users in Indonesia connected to the web via a mobile device.
Similarly, startup growth has boomed in the island archipelago, with several Indonesian-based unicorns disrupting local, regional, and global economies. Softbank-backed ecommerce giant Tokopedia is currently in talks for a pre-IPO funding round, while emerging super-app Gojek controls significant portions of the ride-sharing industry in Asia, simultaneously expanding into separate industries to include digital payments, food delivery, and even video-streaming. Additionally, online travel portal Traveloka (in which Expedia has a minority stake) has recently entered the financial services space, furthering its impact within Asia. These specific examples of high-growth startups demonstrate a population hungry for innovation, further driving the developing startup economy.
Over the past several years, ‘fintech’ has quietly become the unsung darling of venture.
A rapidly swelling pool of new startups is taking aim at the large incumbent institutions, complex processes and outdated unfriendly interfaces that mar billion dollar financial services verticals, such as insurtech, consumer lending, personal finance, or otherwise.
In just the past summer, the startup community saw a multitude of hundred-million dollar fintech fundraises. In 2018, fintech companies were the source of close to 1,300 venture deals worth over $15 billion in North America and Europe alone according to data from Pitchbook. Over the same period, KPMG estimates that over $52 billion in investment pour into fintech initiatives globally.
With the non-stop stream of venture capital flowing into the never-ending list of spaces that fall under the ‘fintech’ umbrella, we asked 12 leading fintech VCs who work at firms that span early to growth stages to share where they see the most opportunity and how they see the market evolving over the long-term.
The participants touched on a number of key trends in the space, including rapid innovation in fintech infrastructure, fintech companies embedding themselves in specific verticals and platforms, rebundling and unbundling of financial services offerings, the rise of challenger banks and the state of fintech valuations into 2020.
The great ‘rebundling’ of fintech innovation is in full swing. The emerging consumer leaders in fintech — Chime, SoFi, Robinhood, Credit Karma, and Bessemer portfolio company Betterment — are moving quickly to increase their share of wallet with their valuable customers and become a one-stop-shop for people’s financial lives.
In 2020, we anticipate continued entrepreneurial activity and investor enthusiasm around the infrastructure and middleware layers within the fintech ecosystem that are enabling further rebundling and a rapid convergence of product themes and business models across the consumer fintech landscape.
Many players now look like potential challenger bank models more akin to what we have seen unfold in Europe the past few years. Within consumer fintech, we at Bessemer are more focused on demographically-specific product offerings that tap into underserved themes, whether that be the financial problems facing the aging population in the US or new models to serve the underbanked or underserved population of consumers and small businesses.
What trends are you most excited in fintech from an investing perspective?
I suspect that many enterprise software companies become fintech companies over time — collecting payments on behalf of customers and growing revenues as your customers grow. We have seen this trend in many industries over the past few years. Business owners generally prefer a model that moves IT expenditures from Operating Expenses into Cost of Goods Sold, because they can increase prices and pass their entire budget onto the customer.
On the consumer side, we have already made investments in branchless banking, insurance (auto, home, health, workers comp), cross-border payments, alternative investments, loyalty cards/services, and roboadvisor services. The companies we funded are already a few years old, and I think we will have some interesting follow-on activity there over the next few years. We have been picking spots where we think we have an unfair competitive advantage.
Our fintech portfolio is also more global than other sectors we invest in. This is because there are opportunities to achieve billion dollar outcomes in fintech, even in countries that are much smaller than the United States. That is not true in many other sectors.
We have also seen trends emerge in the US and move abroad. As an example we seeded Flutterwave, which is similar to Stripe, and they have expanded across Africa. We were also the lead investor in Yeahka, which is similar to Square in China. These products are heavily localized —tin for instance Yeahka is the largest processor of QR code payments in the world, but QR code payments are not popular in the US yet.
How much time are you spending on fintech right now? Is the market under-heated, over-heated, or just right?
Fintech is about a quarter of my time right now. We continue to see interesting new ideas and the valuations have been more or less consistent over time. The broader market doesn’t impact us very much because we tend to have a 10 year holding period.
Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t?
WeWork’s efforts to cut costs following the ouster of its chief executive officer and a delayed initial public offering looks to be impacting its subsidiaries. Meetup, which WeWork acquired for a reported $200 million in 2017, announced a round of layoffs this morning, TechCrunch has learned.
The company, which helps people foster in-person connections by facilitating events across the globe, has shed as much as 25% of its workforce, most of which were employees of the company’s engineering department, sources tell TechCrunch.
“Meetup’s top priority is building the best possible product for our community of more than 44 million members around the world,” a representative of the company said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “Today we made some organizational changes with that goal in mind, including restructuring across some of our departments.”
The news follows WeWork’s own well-documented attempts at restructuring its high-loss business. Late last month, SoftBank provided the over-valued co-working business a much-needed lifeline in the form of a $5 billion loan, a $3 billion tender offer and another $1.5 billion in equity funding, according to The Wall Street Journal. That’s in addition to the billions already invested by the Japanese telecom giant, which now owns a roughly 80% stake. SoftBank’s mountain of cash had previously valued WeWork at an eye-popping $47 billion; the latest investment package, however, valued the company at just $8 billion.
Understandably, WeWork’s new leadership (former vice chairman Sebastian Gunningham and former president and chief operating officer Artie Minson are serving as co-CEOs) seem to be hyper-focused on its new cost-cutting strategy. Multiple reports have indicated the business is weighing sales of several of its subsidiaries, including Meetup, Managed by Q and Conductor. We’ve asked Meetup whether its parent company enforced the staff cuts and will update this story if we hear back.
As for WeWork, it must make a concerted effort to boost its balance sheet in the next few months if it plans to stay committed to a 2020 IPO. The company initially revealed its IPO prospectus in August, disclosing revenue north of $1.5 billion in the six months ending June 30 on losses of $904.6 million. Shortly after, its co-founder and former CEO Adam Neumann’s misbehaviors were published in a number of incriminating stories by The Wall Street Journal and other outlets. Neumann’s trashed reputation coupled with WeWork’s mounting losses forced the company to replace its founding CEO and shelve its IPO, which would have been the second-largest offering of 2019 behind only Uber.
Meetup, founded in 2002, was one of the first IRL social networks. Today’s cuts are not the first since WeWork came into the picture, according to earlier reporting by Gizmodo. Meetup shed roughly 10% of its staff amid negotiations for the acquisition and underwent cultural changes as managers pushed for growth and “more aggressiveness in the workplace.”
The future of Meetup is unclear. WeWork may move forward with a sale of the business or pressure its own cost-cutting measures on the company. In a recent email to Meetup members, CEO David Siegel wrote that he appreciated the recent outpouring of support from the community, as it became apparent the company was in a precarious position because of its owner.
“As you may be aware, there has been significant news about our parent company, WeWork, and what this means for the future of Meetup,” Siegel wrote. “As Meetup’s CEO, I want to personally tell you we’re as committed as ever to bringing people together in person.
With roughly one million customers across Brazil and a new round of financing, the mobile phone insurance provider Pitzi now finds itself with a $100 million valuation.
The size of its latest round, which was led by QED Investors and included commitments from existing investors like Thrive Capital and Valiant Partners, was undisclosed.
PItzi acts as a reseller for insurance companies to offer products around mobile phone insurance across Brazil. Founded in 2012, the company’s mobile handset insurance offerings were a service that was in the right place at the right time, as low cost handsets caused the market in Latin America’s most populous country to explode.
Pitzi previously raised $20 million from investors including Thrive, Kaszek Ventures, Flybridge and DCM. Even with the company’s success, cell phone insurance in Brazil stands at 4%, compared with global standards of more than 40%. This despite the fact that there are more than 200 million phones in Brazil alone.
“Today, only 4% of smartphones here are protected but we’re driving that towards 90% in the coming years and using those phones to unlock even more transformation in the space,” said Daniel Hatkoff, Founder & CEO of Pitzi, in a statement.
The investment by QED Investors puts Pitzi in some pretty good company when it comes to Latin American financial technology startups. Other Latin American investments in the firm’s portfolio include the multi-billion dollar credit card startup, Nubank; the personal finance lender, Creditas; the business lender, Konfio; and the rental financing company Quinto Andar.
As a result of the investment, Bill Cilluffo, a former president of Capital One International and a general partner with QED will take a seat on the company’s board of directors, according to a statement.
For Hatkoff, the cell phone is a window into other products and services in the insurance industry thanks to the ways that the device has transformed so many experiences for the emerging Brazilian middle class.
“The smartphone will be profoundly transformational in Brazil, allowing the emerging middle class to finally emerge and do things it never imagined possible,” said Hatkoff. “As market leaders, we at Pitzi are obsessed with unlocking the Brazilian consumer’s ability to use their phones in ever more powerful ways. Cell phone protection is just the beginning.”
Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a weekend newsletter that dives into the week’s noteworthy startups and venture capital news. Before I jump into today’s topic, let’s catch up a bit. Last week, I wrote about how SoftBank is screwing up. Before that, I noted All Raise’s expansion, Uber the TV show and the unicorn from down under.
Uber Head of Payments Peter Hazlehurst addresses the audience during an Uber products launch event in San Francisco, California, on September 26, 2019. (Photo by Philip Pacheco / AFP) (Photo credit should read PHILIP PACHECO/AFP/Getty Images)
The sheer number of startup players moving into banking services is staggering,” writes my Crunchbase News friends in a piece titled “Why Is Every Startup A Bank These Days.”
I’ve been asking myself the same question this year, as financial services business like Brex, Chime, Robinhood, Wealthfront, Betterment and more raise big rounds to build upstart digital banks. North of $13 billion venture capital dollars have been invested in U.S. fintech companies so far in 2019, up from $12 billion invested in 2018.
This week, one of the largest companies to ever emerge from the Silicon Valley tech ecosystem, Uber, introduced its team focused on developing new financial products and technologies. In a vacuum, a multibillion-dollar public company with more than 22,000 employees launching one new team is not big news. Considering investment and innovation in fintech this year, Uber’s now well-documented struggles to reach profitability and the company’s hiring efforts in New York, a hotbed for financial aficionados, the “Uber Money” team could indicate much larger fintech ambitions for the ride-hailing giant.
As it stands, the Uber Money team will be focused on developing real-time earnings for drivers accessed through the Uber debit account and debit card, which will itself see new features, like 3% or more cash back on gas. Uber Wallet, a digital wallet where drivers can more easily track their earnings, will launch in the coming weeks too, writes Peter Hazlehurst, the head of Uber Money.
This is hardly Uber’s first major foray into financial services. The company’s greatest feature has always been its frictionless payments capabilities that encourage riders and eaters to make purchases without thinking. Uber’s even launched its own consumer credit card to get riders cash back on rides. It’s no secret the company has larger goals in the fintech sphere, and with 100 million “monthly active platform consumers” via Uber, Uber Eats and more, a dedicated path toward new and better financial products may not only lead to happier, more loyal drivers but a company that’s actually, one day, able to post a profit.
The TechCrunch team is heading to Berlin again this year for our annual event, TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin, which brings together entrepreneurs and investors from across the globe. We announced the agenda this week, with leading founders including Away’s Jen Rubio and UiPath’s Daniel Dines. Take a look at the full agenda.
This week on Equity, I was in studio while Alex was remote. We talked about a number of companies and deals, including a new startup taking on Slack, Wag’s woes and a small upstart disrupting the $8 billion nail services industry. Listen to the episode here.
Climate risk, including extreme events and the related pressures our environment, are fundamentally affecting the way businesses and governments operate — both tactically and strategically. Increasing climate volatility is causing food supply disruptions and increasing pressure on Enterprises (including financial institutions, insurers and producers) to disclose what’s going on.
The trouble is, while there is a lot of data about all this, its complexity, incompleteness and sheer volume is too vast for humans to process with the tools available today. So just as the climate changes, we are faced with “data chaos.” Equally, other parts of the world suffer from data scarcity, making it much harder to provide useful and timely analysis.
So the challenge is to address these issues simultaneously. So a new startup, Cervest, has created an AI-driven platform designed to inform the decision-making capabilities of businesses, governments and growers in the face of increasing climate volatility.
Cervest, has now closed a £3.7 million investment round to fund the launch of its real-time, climate forecasting platform.
Built on three years of research and development by a team of scientists, mathematicians, developers and engineers, Cervest says its Earth Science AI platform can analyze billions of data points to forecast how changes in the climate will impact the future of entire countries, right down to individual landscapes.
It does this by combining research and modeling techniques taken from proven Earth sciences — including atmospheric science, meteorology, hydrology and agronomy — with artificial intelligence, imaging, machine learning and Bayesian statistics.
Using large collections of satellite imagery and probability theory, the platform can identify signals, or early-warning signs, of extreme events such as floods, fires and strong winds. It also can spot changes in soil health and identify water risk.
Cervest says the platform could do such things as reveal the optimum location to build a new factory; warn a wheat grower that their crop yield isn’t expected to meet its targets; or be used by insurers to help them set premiums for the next 12 months.
The team comes from a network of more than 30 universities, including Imperial College, The Alan Turing Institute, Cambridge, UCL, Harvard and Oxford, and has published more than 60 peer-reviewed scientific papers.
A beta version of the platform is due to launch in Q1 2020.
Iggy Bassi, founder & CEO, Cervest said: “Our goal is to empower everyone to make informed decisions that improve the long-term resilience of our planet. Today decision-makers are struggling with climate uncertainty and extreme events and how they are affecting their business operations, assets, investments, or policy choices.”
Sofia Hmich, founder, Future Positive Capital said: “With reports suggesting we have fewer than 60 years of farming left unless drastic action is taken, the need for science-backed decisions could not be greater. Businesses and policymakers hold the key to change and with access to Cervest’s proprietary AI technology they can start to make that change a reality at low cost — before it’s too late.”
Bassi previously ran the impact-led agribusiness GADCO, which was supported by Acumen Fund, Soros, Gates Foundation, World Bank and Syngenta . Its impact was featured in UNDP, World Economic Forum, FT, The Guardian and Huff Post. He previously built a software company focused on data analytics.
Cervest was inspired by Bassi’s experience building a farm-to-market agribusiness whilst confronting first-hand the impacts of climate and natural resource volatilities.
The Cervest team includes eight scientists and four PhDs. Between them, they have published more than 60 peer-reviewed scientific papers with more than 3,000 citations in high-profile titles, including Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and The Royal Statistical Society.