FreshRSS

🔒
❌ About FreshRSS
There are new available articles, click to refresh the page.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

All the reasons why you should launch a credit or debit card

By Ryan Lawler

Over the previous two or three years we’ve seen an explosion of new debit and credit card products come to market from consumer and B2B fintech startups, as well as companies that we might not traditionally think of as players in the financial services industry.

On the consumer side, that means companies like Venmo or PayPal offering debit cards as a new way for users to spend funds in their accounts. In the B2B space, the availability of corporate card issuing by startups like Brex and Ramp has ushered in new expense and spend management options. And then there is the growth of branded credit and debit cards among brands and sports teams.

But if your company somehow hasn’t yet found its way to launch a debit or credit card, we have good news: It’s easier than ever to do so and there’s actual money to be made. Just know that if you do, you’ve got plenty of competition and that actual customer usage will probably depend on how sticky your service is and how valuable the rewards are that you offer to your most active users.

To learn more about launching a card product, TechCrunch spoke with executives from Marqeta, Expensify, Synctera and Cardless about the pros and cons of launching a card product. So without further ado, here are all the reasons you should think about doing so, and one big reason why you might not want to.

Because it’s (relatively) easy

Probably the biggest reason we’ve seen so many new fintech and non-fintech companies rush to offer debit and credit cards to customers is simply that it’s easier than ever for them to do so. The launch and success of businesses like Marqeta has made card issuance by API developer friendly, which lowered the barrier to entry significantly over the last half-decade.

“The reason why this is happening is because the ‘fintech 1.0 infrastructure’ has succeeded,” Salman Syed, Marqeta’s SVP and GM of North America, said. “When you’ve got companies like [ours] out there, it’s just gotten a lot easier to be able to put a card product out.”

While noting that there have been good options for card issuance and payment processing for at least the last five or six years, Expensify Chief Operating Officer Anu Muralidharan said that a proliferation of technical resources for other pieces of fintech infrastructure has made the process of greenlighting a card offering much easier over the years.

Israel’s maturing fintech ecosystem may soon create global disruptors

By Annie Siebert
Adi Levanon Contributor
Adi Levanon has been an early-stage VC for nearly a decade, with a strong focus on fintech investments since 2015, both in the U.S. and Israel. Currently, she is the Tel Aviv-based investor at Flint Capital.

“Even with its vast local talent, it seems Israel still has many hurdles to overcome in order to become a global fintech hub. [ … ] Having that said, I don’t believe any of these obstacles will prevent Israel from generating disruptive global fintech startups that will become game-changing businesses.”

I wrote that back in 2018, when I was determined to answer whether Israel had the potential to become a global fintech hub. Suffice to say, this prediction from three years ago has become a reality.

In 2019, Israeli fintech startups raised over $1.8 billion; in 2020, they were said to have raised $1.48 billion despite the pandemic. Just in the first quarter of 2021, Israeli fintech startups raised $1.1 billion, according to IVC Research Center and Meitar Law Offices.

It’s then no surprise that Israel now boasts over a dozen fintech unicorns in sectors such as payments, insurtech, lending, banking and more, some of which reached the desired status just in the beginning of 2021 —  like Melio and Papaya Global, which raised $110 million and $100 million, respectively.

Over the years I’ve been fortunate to invest (both as a venture capitalist and personally) in successful early-stage fintech companies in the U.S., Israel and emerging markets  —  Alloy, Eave, MoneyLion, Migo, Unit, AcroCharge and more.

The major shifts and growth of fintech globally over these years has been largely due to advanced AI-based technologies, heightened regulatory scrutiny, a more innovative and adaptive approach among financial institutions to build partnerships with fintechs, and, of course, the COVID pandemic, which forced consumers to transact digitally.

The pandemic pushed fintechs to become essential for business survival, acting as the main contributor of the rapid migration to digital payments.

So what is it about Israeli-founded fintech startups that stand out from their scaling neighbors across the pond? Israeli founders first and foremost have brought to the table a distinct perspective and understanding of where the gaps exist within their respective focus industries —  whether it was Hippo and Lemonade in the world of property and casualty insurance, Rapyd and Melio in the world of business-to-business payments, or Earnix and Personetics in the world of banking data and analytics.

This is even more compelling given that many of these Israeli founders did not grow within financial services, but rather recognized those gaps, built their know-how around the industry (in some cases by hiring or partnering with industry experts and advisers during their ideation phase, strengthening their knowledge and validation), then sought to build more innovative and customer-focused solutions than most financial institutions can offer.

Having this in mind, it is becoming clearer that the Israeli fintech industry has slowly transitioned into a mature ecosystem with a combination of local talent, which now has expertise from a multitude of local fintechs that have scaled to success; a more global network of banking and insurance partners that have recognized the Israeli fintech disruptors; and the smart fintech -focused venture capital to go along with it. It’s a combination that will continue to set up Israeli fintech founders for success.

In addition, a major contributor to the fintech industry comes from the technological side. It is never enough to reach unicorn status with just the tech on the back end.

What most likely differentiates Israeli fintech from other ecosystems is the strong technological barriers and infrastructure built from the ground up, which then, of course, leads to the ability to be more customized, compliant, secured, etc. If I had to bet on where I believe Israeli fintech startups could become market leaders, I’d go with the following.

Voice-based transactions

Voice technologies have come a long way over the years; where once you knew you were talking to a robot, now financial institutions and applications offer a fully automated experience that sounds and feels just like a company employee.

Israel has shown growing success in the world of voice tech, with companies like Gong.io providing insights for remote sales teams; Bonobo (acquired by Salesforce) offering insights from customer support calls, texts and other interactions; and Voca.ai (acquired by Snapchat) offering an automated support agent to replace the huge costs of maintaining call centers.

Suing your way to the stars

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review!

I’m back from a very fun and rehabilitative couple weeks away from my phone, my Twitter account and the news cycle. That said, I actually really missed writing this newsletter, and while Greg did a fantastic job while I was out, I won’t be handing over the reins again anytime soon. Plenty happened this week and I struggled to zero in on a single topic to address, but I finally chose to focus on Bezos’s Blue Origin suing NASA.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.


The big thing

I was going to write about OnlyFans for the newsletter this week and their fairly shocking move to ban sexually explicit content from their site in a bid to stay friendly with payment processors, but alas I couldn’t help myself and wrote an article for ole TechCrunch dot com instead. Here’s a link if you’re curious.

Now, I should also note that while I was on vacation I missed all of the conversation surrounding Apple’s incredibly controversial child sexual abuse material detection software that really seems to compromise the perceived integrity of personal devices. I’m not alone in finding this to be a pretty worrisome development despite Apple’s intention of staving off a worse alternative. Hopefully, one of these weeks I’ll have the time to talk with some of the folks in the decentralized computing space about how our monolithic reliance on a couple tech companies operating with precious little consumer input is very bad. In the meantime, I will point you to some reporting from TechCrunch’s own Zack Whittaker on the topic which you should peruse because I’m sure it will be a topic I revisit here in the future.

Now then! Onto the topic at hand.

Federal government agencies don’t generally inspire much adoration. While great things have been accomplished at the behest of ample federal funding and the tireless work of civil servants, most agencies are treated as bureaucratic bloat and aren’t generally seen as anything worth passionately defending. Among the public and technologists in particular, NASA occupies a bit more of a sacred space. The American space agency has generally been a source of bipartisan enthusiasm, as has its goal to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024.

Which brings us to some news this week. While so much digital ink was spilled on Jeff Bezos’s little jaunt to the edge of space, cowboy hat, champagne and all, there’s been less fanfare around his space startup’s lawsuit against NASA, which we’ve now learned will delay the development of a new lunar lander by months, potentially throwing NASA’s goal to return astronauts to the moon’s surface on schedule into doubt.

Bezos’s upstart Blue Origin is protesting the fact that they were not awarded a government contract while Elon Musk’s SpaceX earned a $2.89 billion contract to build a lunar lander. This contract wasn’t just recently awarded either, SpaceX won it back in April and Blue Origin had already filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Office. This happened before Bezos penned an open letter promising a $2 billion discount for NASA which had seen budget cuts at the hands of Congress dash its hoped to award multiple contracts. None of these maneuverings proved convincing enough for the folks at NASA, pushing Bezos’s space startup to sue the agency.

This little feud has caused long-minded Twitter users to dig up this little gem from a Bezos 2019 speech — as transcribed by Gizmodo — highlighting Bezos’s own distaste for how bureaucracy and greed have hampered NASA’s ability to reach for the stars:

“To the degree that big NASA programs become seen as jobs programs and that they have to be distributed to the right states where the right Senators live, and so on. That is going to change the objective. Now your objective is not to, you know, whatever it is, to get a man to the moon or a woman to the moon, but instead to get a woman to the moon while preserving X number of jobs in my district. That is a complexifier, and not a healthy one…[…]

Today, there would be, you know, three protests, and the losers would sue the federal government because they didn’t win. It’s interesting, but the thing that slows things down is procurement. It’s become the bigger bottleneck than the technology, which I know for a fact for all the well meaning people at NASA is frustrating.

A Blue Origin spokesperson called the suit, an “attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA’s Human Landing System.” But the lawsuit really seems to highlight how dire this deal is to the ability of Blue Origin to lock down top talent. Whether the startup can handle the reputational risk of suing NASA and delaying America’s return to the moon seems to be a question very much worth asking.


Elon Musk, co-founder and chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., speaks during an unveiling event for the Boring Company Hawthorne test tunnel in Hawthorne, south of Los Angeles, California on December 18, 2018.

Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

OnlyFans bans “sexually explicit content”
A lot of people had pretty visceral reactions to OnlyFans killing off what seems to be a pretty big chunk of its business, outlawing “sexually explicit content” on the platform. It seems the decision was reached as a result of banking and payment partners leaning on the company.

Musk “unveils” the “Tesla Bot”
I truly struggle to even call this news, but I’d be remiss not to highlight how Elon Musk had a guy dress up in a spandex outfit and walk around doing the robot and spawned hundreds of news stories about his new “Tesla Bot.” While there certainly could be a product opportunity here for Tesla at some point, I would bet all of the dogecoin in the world that his prototype “coming next year” either never arrives or falls hilariously short of expectations.

Facebook drops a VR meeting simulator
This week, Facebook released one of its better virtual reality apps, a workplace app designed to help people host meetings inside virtual reality. To be clear, no one really asked for this, but the company made a full court PR press for the app which will help headset owners simulate the pristine experience of sitting in a conference room.

Yes, this looks dumb. But avatar-based work apps are coming for your Zooms, and Facebook made a pretty convincing one here. https://t.co/aGvOW6zm8U

— Lucas Matney (@lucasmtny) August 19, 2021

Social platforms wrestle with Taliban presence on platforms
Following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, social media platforms are being pushed to clarify their policies around accounts operated by identified Taliban members. It’s put some of the platforms in a hairy situation.

Facebook releases content transparency report
This week, Facebook released its first ever content transparency report, highlighting what data on the site had the most reach over a given time period, in this case a three-month period. Compared to lists highlighting which posts get the most engagement on the platform, lists generally populated mostly by right wing influencers and news sources, the list of posts with the most reach seems to be pretty benign.

Safety regulators open inquiry into Tesla Autopilot
While Musk talks about building a branded humanoid robot, U.S. safety regulators are concerned with why Tesla vehicles on Autopilot are crashing into so many parked emergency response vehicles.


 

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

The Nuro EC-1
“..Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu aren’t the only Google self-driving project employees to launch an AV startup, but they might be the most underrated. Their company, Nuro, is valued at $5 billion and has high-profile partnerships with leaders in retail, logistics and food including FedEx, Domino’s and Walmart. And, they seem to have navigated the regulatory obstacle course with success — at least so far…”

A VC shares 5 keys to pitching VCs
“The success of a fundraising process is entirely dependent on how well an entrepreneur can manage it. At this stage, it is important for founders to be honest, straightforward and recognize the value meetings with venture capitalists and investors can bring beyond just the monetary aspect..

A crash course on corporate development
“…If you’re going to get acquired, chances are you’re going to spend a lot of time with corporate development teams. With a hot stock market, mountains of cash and cheap debt floating around, the environment for acquisitions is extremely rich.”


Thanks for reading! Until next week…

Lucas M.

OnlyFans’ porn ban is crypto’s opportunity of a lifetime

By Lucas Matney

Today, OnlyFans dropped the massive bombshell that it will be banning “sexually explicit content” from the app later this year. This is obviously a wildly seismic shift for OnlyFans, which completely disrupted the adult content industry and gave performers a path towards greater independence by allowing them to connect directly with their fans via subscriptions. This shutdown is also the opportunity of a lifetime for the crypto industry which could capitalize on the shutdown and a recent wave of increasingly consumer-friendly crypto payments infrastructure products to create a platform that won’t crumble under the influence of payment providers.

OnlyFans, which has been trying to raise at a unicorn valuation and running into plenty of trouble doing so despite huge revenues, didn’t mince words on the reasoning for today’s fundamental change. “These changes are to comply with the requests of our banking partners and payout providers,” a statement on the news from OnlyFans partially read.

Despite popular culture’s ongoing destigmatization of sex work and adult content, banking institutions are still fundamentally conservative and wary to handle money flowing through these platforms. Most of the operators of these platform are forced to deal with constant uneasiness of knowing their platforms might one day lose favor among these providers and instantly lose everything. All the while, “vice clauses” present in plenty of venture capital firms’ underpinnings keep them from operating in these spaces as well and prevent these platforms from accessing growth capital. It’s clear that adult content platforms are probably never going to have a friendly relationship with these financial institutions and it’s likely time for the platforms — and the creators using them — to move on.

In a lot of ways, OnlyFans dumping porn seems like an outright betrayal of their creator network and one those creators will be sure to remember when embracing whatever copycats spring up in their wake. They are likely going to look at new platforms with renewed skepticism in how they’ll handle payment provider standoffs, but there likely isn’t going to be a different outcome for ambitious platforms looking to grow. That would likely be a different situation for crypto native platforms, but given the tiny adoption, it’s still a substantial risk for creators to embrace a platform their fans might not know how to pay for content on.

The porn industry has been embracing crypto payments, albeit slowly. In 2018, Pornhub first announced that they would begin accepting cryptocurrency payments, fast forward to 2020 when Visa and MasterCard dumped the platform, now crypto payments and ACH bank transfers are the only ways to pay for its premium subscription service. There are already a few crypto platform players in this space like CumRocket and SpankChain catering to niche audiences (and probably in need of rebranding), but with the OnlyFans juggernaut out of the way, there might actually be a space for an existing or upstart player to innovate and capture this market.

The real challenge is in making it simple to onboard new users to both a new platform and potentially their first crypto wallet — while staying compliant with regulatory guidelines — at a time when more conventional web payment structures have gotten so streamlined and free adult content is just as prolific as ever. Know your customer (KYC) guidelines that push users to upload their passport or driver’s license to verify crypto purchases probably aren’t the easiest onboarding ask for a new crypto porn site, but as the market matures a bit and the challenges of a user setting up their first wallet are decoupled from the onboarding process for the platform, there are plenty of benefits to be realized.

Porn has always been a launchpad of sorts for new technologies. While the popularity of crypto has surged in recent months and nearly eclipsed $2 trillion in total assets, crypto penetration among the apps that people are actually using remains extremely low. As new solutions and startups pop up aiming to demystify buying and sending crypto, it feels like there’s a chance the industry could be in the perfect place to fill the void left by OnlyFans’ exit and build a more innovative platform in its image that goes all-in on crypto.

Embedded finance won’t make every firm into a fintech company

By Annie Siebert
Eyal Lifshitz Contributor
Eyal Lifshitz is the CEO of BlueVine.
More posts by this contributor

A short decade after software started eating the world, along came headlines about every company becoming a fintech thanks to innovation and growth in embedded finance business models.

This narrative oversimplifies the evolution that’s happening in the financial services sector. Storing and moving money and extending credit in a regulated environment is difficult. And differentiating your offering from incumbent financial institutions requires much more than superficial tweaks.

What really makes a fintech company extends far beyond user interface enhancements and delivering financial services to end customers. It’s what’s “under the hood” — the full-stack approach that allows fintech companies to truly innovate for their customers.

What really makes a fintech company extends far beyond user interface enhancements and delivering financial services to end customers.

Embedded finance helps companies and brands outside of the core financial sector distribute financial services. This requires varying levels of effort from the company and looks like anything from Starbucks offering an integrated wallet and payments within its app to Lyft offering a debit card to their drivers. But that doesn’t make Starbucks or Lyft fintech companies.

The fallacy behind the hype

The “every company will be a fintech” stance investors are bullish on conflates multiple approaches to inlaying financial offerings, coupling the resurgence of white-labeled financial services (which have been around for decades) with the rising banking, payments and lending-as-a-service players. The latter approach allows companies to customize their financial product experience while outsourcing many core financial services tasks. The former is simply distribution through embedded delivery.

There are four core tenets to fully operate as a financial services provider: a customer-facing product, transactional infrastructure, risk management and compliance, and customer servicing. In the case of lending, there is a fifth tenet: Companies also need to be able to manage capital. Embedded financial services help companies sidestep the majority of what it really means to be a fintech.

White-labeling versus “becoming a fintech”

While embedded finance is hot today, white-labeled financial services have been around for decades. Branded credit cards, for example, are a common paradigm for white-labeling. They quickly became a lasting way to incentivize consumer loyalty but don’t signal real effort or know-how in financial services. United and Alaska don’t run credit checks, configure billing or handle disputes for cardholding customers, nor do they assume any risk by embossing their logo on a card. The partnerships are major money makers for airlines while the risk stays on the financial institutions’ side (Chase, Bank of America and Visa). This risk can even account for significant loss on the financial side: According to American Express, 21% of its outstanding credit card loans belonged to people with a Delta credit card a few years ago.

This white-labeling approach is becoming common for other services, coming to life in forms like banking offerings from cell carriers, and it’s by design: Financial services are complex and highly regulated, so brands prefer to defer most of the work to the experts. So while United, Delta or T-Mobile offer financial services under their brand, they are definitely not becoming fintech companies.

In contrast, some corporations are seeing the opportunity to build financial services from the ground up. Walmart’s move to snag Goldman Sachs talent to lead its foray into finance (with Ribbit at the helm) shows promise for a true fintech spinout.

The investment in expertise in compliance and risk management furthers the company’s potential to build detailed and relevant infrastructure from the get-go — a significant step beyond the retailer’s many existing white-labeled financial partnerships.

The limitations of platforms as a service

Tools and turnkey solutions that help non-finance companies build financial applications more recently came into the mix: VCs are enthusiastic about new players building embedded payments, lending and, more recently, banking platform services (also known as BaaS) through APIs and backend tools.

As opposed to financial infrastructure services provided directly by sponsor banks or processors providing payments or ledger services, these platforms abstract the underlying infrastructure, wrap them with friendly-to-use APIs, and bundle core financial elements like risk management, compliance and servicing. While these platforms do offer some self-efficacy for companies to provide financial services, their major limitation is that they’re general purpose by design.

Fintechs found an opportunity to serve customers overlooked and underserved by traditional finance through specialization. Traditional financial institutions long applied the generalist model, carrying hundreds of SKUs and serving all segments. This strategy inevitably led banks to invest more in services for their most profitable customers, optimizing for their needs. Less profitable segments were left with stale and one-size-fits-all offerings.

Fintechs’ success with these underserved segments is derived from a relentless pursuit and laser focus on addressing core customers’ unique needs, building products and services designed for them. In order to deliver on this promise, fintechs must innovate across all layers of the stack — from the product experience and feature set to the infrastructure and risk management, all the way down to servicing.

UI is not nearly enough to differentiate, and addressing customers’ needs while minding overall unit economics is critical. One fintech’s choices on these matters may be completely different from another if they address different segments — it all boils down to tradeoffs. For example, deciding on which data sources to use and balancing between onboarding and transactional risk look different if optimizing for freelancers rather than larger small businesses.

In contrast, third-party platform providers must be generic enough to power a broad range of companies and to enable multiple use cases. While the companies partnering with these services can build and customize at the product feature level, they are heavily reliant on their platform partner for infrastructure and core financial services, thus limited to that partner’s configurations and capabilities.

As such, embedded platform services work well to power straightforward commoditized tasks like credit card processing, but limit companies’ ability to differentiate on more complex offerings, like banking, which require end-to-end optimization.

More generally and from a customer’s perspective, embedded fintech partnerships are most effective when providing confined financial services within specific user flows to enhance the overall user experience.

For example, a company can offer credit at the point of sale through a third-party provider to enable a purchase. However, when considering general purpose and standalone financial services, the benefits of embedded fintech are much weaker.

Building a product of choice

The biggest proponents of embedded finance argue that large companies and brands can be successful with finance add-ons on their platforms because of their brand recognition and install base.

But that overlooks the reality of choice in the market: Just because a customer does one facet of their business with a company doesn’t necessarily mean they want that company as their provider for everything, especially if the service is inferior to what they can get elsewhere.

While the fintech market booms and legacy brands continue to buy into the opportunity, verticalized, full-stack fintechs will trump their generic offerings time and time again. Some aspects of embedded finance and white-labeling will continue to crop up or prevail, like payment processing and buy now, pay later services. But customers will continue to choose the banks/neobanks, lenders and tools built for them and their own unique needs, bucking the “every company is a fintech” fallacy.

Element Ventures pulls in $130M to double-down on the fintech enterprise trend

By Mike Butcher

With the rise of Open Banking, PSD2 Regulation, insurtech and the whole, general fintech boom, tech investors have realized there is an increasing place for dedicated funds which double down on this ongoing movement. When you look at the rise of banking-as-a-service offerings, payments platforms, insurtech, asset management and infrastructure providers, you realize there is a pretty huge revolution going on.

European fintech companies have raised $12.3 billion in 2021 according to Dealroom, but the market is still wide open for a great deal more funding for B2B fintech startups.

So it’s no surprise that B2B fintech-focused Element Ventures has announced a $130 million fund to double down on this new fintech enterprise trend.

Founded by financial services veterans Stephen Gibson and Michael McFadgen, and joined by Spencer Lake (HSBC’s former vice chairman of Global Banking and Markets), Element is backed by finance-oriented LPs and some 30 founders and executives from the sector.

Element says it will focus on what it calls a “high conviction investment strategy,” which will mean investing in only around a handful of companies a year (15 for the fund in total) but, it says, providing a “high level of support” to its portfolio.

So far it has backed B2B fintech firms across the U.K. and Europe, including Hepster (total raised $10 million), the embedded insurance platform out of Germany which I recently reported on; Billhop (total raised $6.7 million), the B2B payment network out of Sweden; Coincover (total raised $11.6 million), a cryptocurrency recovery service out of the U.K.; and Minna (total raised $25 million), the subscription management platform out of Sweden.

Speaking to me over a call, McFadgen, partner at Element Ventures, said: “Stephen and I have been investing in B2B fintech together for quite a long time. In 2018 we had the opportunity to start element and Spencer came on board in 2019. So Element as an independent venture firm is really a continuation of a strategy we’ve been involved in for a long time.”

Gibson added: “We are quite convinced by the European movement and the breakthrough these fintech and insurtech firms in Europe are having. Insurance has been a desert for innovation and that is changing. And you can see that we’re sort of trying to build a network around companies that have those breakthrough moments and provide not just capital but all the other things we think are part of the story. Building the company from A to C and D is the area that we try and roll our sleeves up and help these firms.”

Element says it also will be investing in the U.S. and Asia.

Kuda, the African challenger bank, raises $55M at a $500M valuation

By Ingrid Lunden

Kuda Bank, the London-based, Nigerian-operating startup that is taking on incumbents in the country with a mobile-first, personalised and often cheaper set of banking services built on newer, API-based infrastructure, has been on a growth tear in the last several months, and to fuel its expansion, it has now raised another round of funding.

TechCrunch has learned, and confirmed with Kuda, that the startup has closed, via its London entity, a Series B of $55 million — money that it plans to use to double down not just on new services for Nigeria, but to prepare its launch into more countries on the continent, and in the words of co-founder and CEO Babs Ogundeyi, to build a new take on banking services for “every African on the planet.”

The funding was made at a valuation of $500 million, and it comes on the back of some impressive early growth for the startup.

“We’ve been doing a lot of resource deployment … in Nigeria. But now we are doubling down on expansion and the idea is to build a strong team for the expansion plans for Kuda,” Ogundeyi told TechCrunch in an interview. “We still see Nigeria as an important market and don’t want to be distracted so don’t want to disrupt those operations too much. It’s a strong market and competitive. It’s one that we feel we need to have a strong hold on. So this funding is to invest in expansion and have more experience in the company with relation to expansion.”

Kuda now has 1.4 million registered users, which is more than double the number it had in March when it had 650,000 registered users — a figure it revealed when announcing its Series A of $25 million led by Valar Ventures.

We understand that this latest Series B was a relatively quick inside round — that is, it’s coming from existing investors. Co-led by Valar Ventures and Target Global, it also includes SBI and a number of previous angels also participating. Kuda was not proactively raising money at the time the Series B was initiated and closed.

“We felt that Babs and Musty” — Musty Mustapha, the co-founder and CTO — “are ambitious on another level. For them, it was always about building a pan-African bank, not just a Nigerian leader,” said Ricardo Schäfer, the partner at Target who led the round for the firm. “The prospect of banking over 1 billion people from day one really stood out for me at the beginning.”

You might notice that it’s only been four months since Kuda last announced a round of funding. Equity rounds raised in quick succession, sometimes just months apart, seems to be the order of the day at the moment, fueled in part by a lot of money being pumped into venture at the moment, but also by the state of the market. When the company in question is showing all the right growth metrics and is working in a particularly buzzy area, many will strike when the iron is hot. (GoPuff, which last week confirmed a $1 billion raise just months after a previous round, is another example of that happening from a different corner of the world.)

Neobanks — fintechs building a new generation disruptive of banking services based around more modern interfaces and infrastructure based around the concept of API-driven embedded finance — have been one of these areas, growing at a rate of nearly 50% annually in terms of revenues and projected to be collectively a $723 billion market by 2028.

Within that, we’re seeing a number of strong players emerging across the globe built on this model — Nubank out of Brazil, Revolut and N26 in Europe, WeBank in China, Varo and Chime in the U.S. among them. In this regard, Africa may be the last great untapped region when it comes to banking, one reason why Kuda is seeing strong adoption.

The writing has been on the wall for years. A report from McKinsey on banking in Africa in 2018 identified a surge of interest in financial services that were delivered digitally, and that growth would be driven by a rapidly evolving middle class of consumers, while at the same time an ongoing dearth of accessible financial services for the majority of the population with some 300 million people still unbanked on the continent. It’s these three basic factors on which Kuda has built its own service.

Kuda is not the only one building and raising and growing. Others raising money for new fintech plays include payments company Chipper Cash, Airtel Africa, online lender FairMoney and more.

However, Kuda is unique among the neobanks in that it is building its services with its own banking license in hand.

This means that it can be more flexible and fast-moving when it comes to creating new products or tweaking existing ones, and it gives the company another level of credibility in a region where those who were already banking with incumbents might be more wary of new players.

Indeed, Kuda’s initial business model was built around providing banking services to people who still also held accounts with incumbent banks: People would have their salaries paid into their old accounts and then transferred out to be spent and used in other ways via their Kuda accounts. Ogundeyi said that this is gradually shifting and more people are now bringing both paying-in and paying-out to their Kuda accounts.

Ogundeyi would not say which countries would be Kuda’s next targets. But he did note that its most recently launched product, Kuda’s first move into credit by way of an overdraft allowance, is a sign of the things to come.

“It’s a unique product, an overdraft that we pre-qualify the most active users for,” he said. In Q2 it qualified over 200,000 users and pushed out $20 million worth of credit. With a 30-day repayment, he said, so far default has been “minimal” because of the company’s approach.

“We use all the data we have for a customer and allocate the overdraft proportion based on the customer’s activities, aiming for it not to be a burden to repay,” he added.

Andrew McCormack, a general partner at Valar Ventures who co-founded the firm with Peter Thiel and James Fitzgerald, said that the still-nascent potential of the market, and how Kuda is approaching that, were behind its decision to invest in the startup another time.

“Kuda is our first investment in Africa and our initial confidence in the team has been upheld by its rapid growth in the past four months,” he said. “With a youthful population eager to adopt digital financial services in the region, we believe that Kuda’s transformative effect on banking will scale across Africa and we’re proud to continue supporting them.”

WhenThen’s no-code payments platform attracts $6M from European VCs Stride and Cavalry

By Mike Butcher

The payments space – amazingly – remains up for grabs for startups. Yes dear reader, despite the success of Stripe, there seems to be a new payments startup virtually every other day. It’s a mess out there! The accelerated growth of e-commerce due to the pandemic means payments are now a booming space. And here comes another one, with a twist.

WhenThen has built a no-code payment operations platform that, they claim, streamlines the payment processes “of merchants of any kind”.  It says its platform can autonomously orchestrate, monitor, improve and manage all customer payments and payments ops.

The startup’s opportunity has arisen because service providers across different verticals increasingly want to get into open banking and provide their own payment solutions and financial services.

Founded 6 months ago, WhenThen has now raised $6 million, backed by European VCs Stride and Cavalry.

The founders, Kirk Donohoe, Eamon Doyle and Dave Brown  are three former Mastercard Payment veterans.

Based “out of Dublin, CEO Donohoe told me: “We see traditional businesses embracing e-comm, and e-comm merchants now operating multiple business models such as trade supply, marketplace, subscription, and more. There is no platform that makes it easy for such businesses to create and operate multiple payment flows to support multiple business models in one place – that’s where we step in.”

He added: “WhenThen is helping ecommerce digital platforms build advanced payment flows and payment automation, in minutes as opposed to months. When you start to integrate different payment methods, different payment gateways, how you want the payment to move from collection through to payout gets very, very complex. I’ve been doing this for over a decade now, as an entrepreneur building different businesses that had to accept collect and pay payments.”

He said his founding team “had to build very complex payment flows for large merchants, airlines, hotels, issuers, and we just found it was ridiculous that you have to continue to do the same thing over and over again. So we decided to come up with WhenThen as a better way to be able to help you build those flows in minutes.”

Claude Ritter, managing partner at Cavalry said: “Basic payment orchestration platforms have been around for some time, focusing mostly on maximizing payment acceptance by optimizing routing. WhenThen provides the first end-to-end payment flow platform to equip businesses with the opportunity to control every stage of the payment flow from payment intent to payout.”

WhenThen supports a wide range of popular payment providers such as Stripe, Braintree, Adyen, Authorize.net, Checkout.com, etc., and a variety of alternative and locally preferred payment methods such as Klarna Affirm, PayPal, BitPay.

“For brave merchants considering global reach and operating multiple business models concurrently, I believe choosing the right payment ops platform will become as important as choosing the right e-commerce platform. Building your entire ecomm experience tightly coupled to a single payment processor is a hard correction to make down the line – you need a payment flow platform like WhenThen,” added Fred Destin, founder of Stride.VC.

Yapily raises $51 million for its open banking API by focusing on infrastructure

By Romain Dillet

Fintech startup Yapily has raised a $51 million Series B funding round led by Sapphire Ventures. The company has been working on a single, unified open banking API for several European markets. Developers can leverage that programming interface to interact with third-party bank accounts directly from their own products.

“The core difference between us and most of the players in the space is our focus on the infrastructure,” founder and CEO Stefano Vaccino told me. Unlike Tink or TrueLayer, Yapily operates in the background. You never see a Yapily logo anywhere and the company provides no front-end interface.

Another difference is that Yapily focuses exclusively on API integrations. Due to recent regulatory changes in Europe (PSD2), banks now have to offer official APIs to integrate with third-party services. While some still don’t offer APIs, many of them are now complying with the rules.

By focusing on official APIs, Yapily can offer a snappier and more reliable experience. Other startups working on unified open banking APIs rely on a mix of official APIs, screen scraping and private APIs. Screen scraping can be particularly slow and private APIs sometimes stop working overnight.

When it comes to coverage, Yapily supports more than 1,500 banks across eight different countries. “We have between 90 and 99% coverage in the U.K., France, Spain, Germany, Ireland, Austria, Italy and the Netherlands,” Vaccino said. You can see the full list of banks on this page. According to Vaccino, only Tink has a similar level of coverage in Europe.

You can use Yapily’s API for several different purposes. For instance, the API lets you check the balance on a bank account, check the account holder name and fetch the last two years of transaction.

But the startup has also noticed that more and more customers rely on open banking to initiate payments from a bank account. Compared to card payments, account-to-account payments are cheaper. Cards also expire, leading to churn. Yapily’s API can be used for one-time payments, international payments, bulk payments and recurring payments.

With today’s funding round, the company plans to expand its commercial presence across Europe. In addition to the U.K., Germany and Italy, Yapily will hire new team members focused on France and Spain.

The startup will also build integrations with banks in new markets in Northern Europe and the Baltics — and then beyond Europe. “At the beginning of next year, we’re going to look at Latin America and especially Brazil,” Vaccino said. Brazilian banks already have a lot of open banking APIs.

Right now, Yapily has around 100 customers, such as American Express, QuickBooks, Bux, Vivid Money, Volt and Moneyfarm. By focusing on the infrastructure layer, other fintech startups are taking advantage of Yapily to build applications on top of the startup’s API. It’s an interesting go-to-market strategy and it seems to be working well.

Square launches business bank accounts

By Romain Dillet

One step at a time, Square is creating a new bank from scratch. Today, the company is launching a new product called Square Banking that combines a checking account, savings accounts, debit cards and loans under a single roof. With Square Banking, the company wants to convince small businesses that it’s just easier to manage all their money needs through Square.

Originally focused on payments processing, Square launched a debit card for its business customers in 2019. This way, business owners can start spending the money they’re bringing in through Square payments without having to transfer the money to a separate bank account first.

With today’s launch, the company is expanding beyond its debit card offering by adding checking and savings accounts. Every time you make a sale, you can access the funds from your new Square checking account. There are no monthly fees, no credit checks and no minimum balance.

And because it’s a traditional checking account, you get your own account and routing numbers — you can receive and send money from your account directly. Behind the scenes, checking accounts are currently provided by Sutton Bank — your funds are FDIC-insured.

Square now also lets you open savings accounts. The company is taking advantage of the fact that it also manages your sales through its payments products. You can choose a percentage of your Square sales revenue so that you can save money every day without having to think about it. Users can also create different folders for different business needs — sales taxes, new machine, etc.

Right now, Square offers an annuel percentage yield (APY) of 0.50% but that rate is only guaranteed through the end of 2021. Transfers between your savings accounts and your Square checking account are free and instant. Once again, your savings accounts are FDIC-insured.

Image Credits: Square

Finally, Square is integrating its business loans with the rest of its banking products. Instead of calling it Square Capital, the product is simply called ‘Loans’. The company recently completed the charter approval process for Square Financial Services, proving that its lending products are a key part of the company’s strategy going forward.

Compared to traditional business loans, Square has simplified repayments. It takes a percentage of your daily card transactions, which means that you pay more when you have more sales and you pay less when you have fewer sales. Of couse, if you’re temporarily shutting down your business, you have to pay a minimum payment every 60 days.

Square Banking will be particularly interesting for small businesses already using Square to process payments for in-person and online sales. Chances are these customers also have a business bank account that isn’t managed by Square. But they could realize that they use those separate accounts less and less as Square keeps adding features to its banking products.

With open banking on the horizon, the fintech-SME love story is just beginning

By Ram Iyer
Lee Li Contributor
Lee Li is a project manager and B2B copywriter with a decade of experience in the Chinese fintech startup space as a PM for TaoBao, MeitTuan and DouYin (now TikTok).

The fintech sector has been hugely successful (and hugely profitable) for much of the last decade, and even more so during the pandemic. But it might come as a surprise to learn that many in the industry believe that the story is just beginning and the sector is poised to achieve much more, with fintech’s next decade expected to be radically different from the last 10 years.

Long before the pandemic, the way in which banks were regulated was changing. Initiatives like Open Banking and the Revised Payment Services Directive (PSD2) were being proposed as a way to promote competition in the banking industry — allowing smaller challenger firms to break into a market that has long been dominated by corporate titans.

Now that these initiatives are in place, however, we’re seeing that their effect goes way beyond opening up a gap for challenger banks. Since open banking requires that banks make valuable data available via APIs, it is leading to a revolution in the way that small and mid-size enterprises (SMEs) are funded — one in which data, and not hard capital, is the most important factor driving fintech success.

Open banking and data freedom

In order to understand the changes that are sweeping fintech and reconfiguring the way that the industry works with small businesses, it’s important to understand open banking. This is a concept that has really taken hold among governmental and supranational banking regulators over the past decade, and we are now beginning to see its impact across the banking sector.

Allowing third parties access to the data held at banks will allow the true financial position of SMEs to be assessed, many for the first time.

At its most fundamental level, open banking refers to the process of using APIs to open up consumers’ financial data to third parties. This allows these third parties to design, build and distribute their own financial products. The utility (and, ultimately, the profitability) of these products doesn’t rely on them holding huge amounts of capital — rather, it is the data they harvest and contain that endows them with value.

Open-banking models raise a number of challenges. One is that the banking industry will need to develop much more rigorous systems to continually seek consumer consent for data to be shared in this way. Though the early years of fintech have taught us that consumers are pretty relaxed when it comes to giving up their data — with some studies indicating that almost 60% of Americans choose fintech over privacy — the type and volume shared through open-banking frameworks is much more extensive than the products we have seen up until now.

Despite these concerns, the push toward open banking is progressing around the world. In Europe, the PSD2 (the Payment Services Directive) requires large banks to share financial information with third parties, and in Asia services like Alipay and WeChat in China, and Tez and PayTM in India are already altering the financial services market. The extra capabilities available through these services are already leading to calls for the U.S. banking system to embrace open banking to the same degree.

Serving SMEs

If the U.S. banking industry can be convinced of the utility of open banking, or if it is forced to do so via legislation, several groups are likely to benefit:

  • Consumers will be offered novel banking and investment products based on far more detailed data analysis than exists at present.
  • The fintech companies who design and build these products will also see the use of their products increase, and their profit margins alongside this.
  • Arguably, even banks will benefit, because even in the most open models it is banks who still act as the gatekeepers, deciding which third parties have access to consumer data, and what they need to do to access.

By far the biggest beneficiary of open banking, however, will be SMEs. This is not necessarily because open-banking frameworks offer specific new functionality that will be useful to small and medium-sized businesses. Instead, it is a reflection of the fact that SMEs have historically been so poorly served by traditional banks.

SMEs are underserved in a number of ways. Traditional banks have an extremely limited ability to view the aggregate financial position of an SME that holds capital across multiple institutions and in multiple instruments, which makes securing finance very difficult.

In addition, SMEs often have to deal with dated and time-consuming manual interfaces to upload data to their bank. And (perhaps worst of all) the B2B payment systems in use at most banks provide very limited feedback to the businesses that use them — a lack of information that can cost businesses dearly.

New capabilities

Given these deficiencies, it’s not surprising that fintech startups are keen to lend to small businesses, and that SMEs are actively looking for novel banking products and services. There have, of course, already been some success stories in this space, and the kinds of banking systems available to SMEs today (especially in Europe) are leagues ahead of the services available even 10 years ago.

However, open banking promises to accelerate this transformation and dramatically improve the financial services available to the average SME. It will do this in several ways. Allowing third parties access to the data held at banks will allow the true financial position of SMEs to be assessed, many for the first time.

Via APIs, fintech companies will be able to access information on different types of accounts, insurance, card accounts and leases, and consolidate data from multiple countries into one overall picture.

This, in turn, will have major effects on the way that credit-worthiness is assessed for SMEs. At the moment, there is a funding gap facing many SMEs, largely because banks have been hesitant to move away from the “balance sheet” model of assessing credit risk. By using real-time analytics on an SME’s current business activities, banks will be able to more accurately assess this risk and lend to more businesses.

In fact, this is already happening in countries where open banking is well advanced – in the U.K., Lloyds’ Business ToolBox offers unlimited credit checks on companies and directors in addition to account transaction data.

Open banking will also allow peer comparison analytics far ahead of what we have seen until now. APIs can be used to provide SMEs real-time feedback on how they are performing within their market sector. Again, this ability is already available in the U.K., with Barclays’ SmartBusiness Dashboard offering marketing effectiveness tools as part of a customizable business dashboard.

These capabilities will be so useful to SMEs that they are likely to drive the popularity of any fintech product that offers them. For SMEs, this value will lie mainly in intelligent data-analytics-based insights, recommendations and automatic prompts that can be built on top of account aggregation.

Then, additional insights generated from these same monitoring tools could enable banks and alternative lenders to be more proactive with their lending — offering preapproved lines of credit, in a timely manner, to SMEs that would have previously found it difficult to access funding.

The bottom line

Crucially for the fintech sector, it’s almost a certainty that SMEs will be willing to pay fees for data-analytics-based value-added services that help them grow. This is why some startups in this space are already attracting huge levels of funding, and why open banking is at the heart of the relationship between tech and the economy.

So if fintech has had a good year, this is likely to be just the start of the story. Backed by open-banking initiatives, the sector is now at the forefront of a banking revolution that will finally give SMEs the level of service they deserve and unleash their true potential across the economy at large.

The Accellion data breach continues to get messier

By Carly Page

Morgan Stanley has joined the growing list of Accellion hack victims — more than six months after attackers first breached the vendor’s 20-year-old file-sharing product. 

The investment banking firm — which is no stranger to data breaches — confirmed in a letter this week that attackers stole personal information belonging to its customers by hacking into the Accellion FTA server of its third-party vendor, Guidehouse. In a letter sent to those affected, first reported by Bleeping Computer, Morgan Stanley admitted that threat actors stole an unknown number of documents containing customers’ addresses and Social Security numbers.

The documents were encrypted, but the letter said that the hackers also obtained the decryption key, though Morgan Stanley said the files did not contain passwords that could be used to access customers’ financial accounts.

“The protection of client data is of the utmost importance and is something we take very seriously,” a Morgan Stanley spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We are in close contact with Guidehouse and are taking steps to mitigate potential risks to clients.”

Just days before news of the Morgan Stanley data breach came to light, an Arkansas-based healthcare provider confirmed it had also suffered a data breach as a result of the Accellion attack. Just weeks before that, so did UC Berkely. While data breaches tend to grow past initially reported figures, the fact that organizations are still coming out as Accellion victims more than six months later shows that the business software provider still hasn’t managed to get a handle on it. 

The cyberattack was first uncovered on December 23, and Accellion initially claimed the FTA vulnerability was patched within 72 hours before it was later forced to explain that new vulnerabilities were discovered. Accellion’s next (and final) update came in March, when the company claimed that all known FTA vulnerabilities — which authorities say were exploited by the FIN11 and the Clop ransomware gang — have been remediated.

But incident responders said Accellion’s response to the incident wasn’t as smooth as the company let on, claiming the company was slow to raise the alarm in regards to the potential danger to FTA customers.

The Reserve Bank of New Zealand, for example, raised concerns about the timeliness of alerts it received from Accellion. In a statement, the bank said it was reliant on Accellion to alert it to any vulnerabilities in the system — but never received any warnings in December or January.

“In this instance, their notifications to us did not leave their system and hence did not reach the Reserve Bank in advance of the breach. We received no advance warning,” said RBNZ governor Adrian Orr.

This, according to a discovery made by KPMG International, was due to the fact that the email tool used by Accellion failed to work: “Software updates to address the issue were released by the vendor in December 2020 soon after it discovered the vulnerability. The email tool used by the vendor, however, failed to send the email notifications and consequently the Bank was not notified until 6 January 2021,” the KPMG’s assessment said. 

“We have not sighted evidence that the vendor informed the Bank that the System vulnerability was being actively exploited at other customers. This information, if provided in a timely manner is highly likely to have significantly influenced key decisions that were being made by the Bank at the time.”

In March, back when it was releasing updates about the ongoing breach, Accellion was keen to emphasize that it was planning to retire the 20-year-old FTA product in April and that it had been working for three years to transition clients onto its new platform, Kiteworks. A press release from the company in May says 75% of Accellion customers have already migrated to Kiteworks, a figure that also highlights the fact that 25% are still clinging to its now-retired FTA product. 

This, along with Accellion now taking a more hands-off approach to the incident, means that the list of victims could keep growing. It’s currently unclear how many the attack has claimed so far, though recent tallies put the list at around 300. This list includes Qualys, Bombardier, Shell, Singtel, the University of Colorado, the University of California, Transport for New South Wales, Office of the Washington State Auditor, grocery giant Kroger and law firm Jones Day.

“When a patch is issued for software that has been actively exploited, simply patching the software and moving on isn’t the best path,” Tim Mackey, principal security strategist at the Synopsys Cybersecurity Research Center, told TechCrunch. “Since the goal of patch management is protecting systems from compromise, patch management strategies should include reviews for indications of previous compromise.”

Accellion declined to comment.

Visa to acquire open banking platform Tink for more than $2 billion

By Romain Dillet

Visa has announced plans to acquire Tink for €1.8 billion, or $2.15 billion at today’s exchange rate. Tink has been a leading fintech startup in Europe focused on open banking application programming interface (API).

Today’s move comes a few months after Visa abandoned its acquisition of Plaid, another popular open banking startup. Originally, Visa planned to spend $5.3 billion to acquire the American startup. But the company had to call off the acquisition after running into a regulatory wall.

Tink offers a single API so that customers can connect to bank accounts from their own apps and services. For instance, you can leverage Tink’s API to access account statements, initiate payments, fetch banking information and refresh this data regularly.

While banks and financial institutions now all have to offer open banking interfaces due to EU’s Payment Services Directive PSD2, there’s no single standard. Tink integrates with 3,400 banks and financial institutions.

App developers can use the same API call to interact with bank accounts across various financial institutions. As you may have guessed, it greatly simplifies the adoption of open banking features.

300 banks and fintech startups use Tink’s API to access third-party bank information — clients include PayPal, BNP Paribas, American Express and Lydia. Overall, Tink covers 250 million bank customers across Europe.

Based in Stockholm, Sweden, Tink operations should continue as usual after the acquisition. Visa plans to retain the brand and management team.

According to Crunchbase data, Tink has raised over $300 million from Dawn Capital, Eurazeo, HMI Capital, Insight Partners, PayPal Ventures, Creades, Heartcore Capital and others.

“For the past ten years we have worked relentlessly to build Tink into a leading open banking platform in Europe, and we are incredibly proud of what the whole team at Tink has created together,” Tink co-founder and CEO Daniel Kjellén said in a statement. “We have built something incredible and at the same time we have only scratched the surface.”

“Joining Visa, we will be able to move faster and reach further than ever before. Visa is the perfect partner for the next stage of Tink’s journey, and we are incredibly excited about what this will bring to our employees, customers and for the future of financial services.”

In its first funding in 7 years, profitable fintech Lower raises $100M Series A led by Accel

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Lower, an Ohio-based home finance platform, announced today it has raised $100 million in a Series A funding round led by Accel.

This round is notable for a number of reasons. First off, it’s a large Series A even by today’s standards. The financing also marks the previously bootstrapped Lower’s first external round of funding in its seven-year history. Lower is also something that is kind of rare these days in the startup world: profitable. Silicon Valley-based Accel has a history of backing profitable, bootstrapped companies, having also led large Series A rounds for the likes of 1Password, Atlassian, Qualtrics, Webflow, Tenable and Galileo (which went on to be acquired by SoFi). 

In fact, Galileo founder Clay Wilkes introduced the VC firm to Dan Snyder, Lower’s founder and CEO. The two companies have a few things in common besides being profitable: they were both bootstrapped for years before taking institutional capital and both have headquarters outside of Silicon Valley.

“We were immediately intrigued because Ohio-based Lower echoes both of these themes,” said Accel partner John Locke, who led the firm’s investment in Lower and is taking a seat on the company’s board as part of the investment. “Like Galileo, Lower will be one of the most successful bootstrapped fintech companies globally. The combination of a company built in a nontraditional region across the globe and a bootstrapped company reminds us of [other] companies we have partnered with for a large Series A.”

There were other unnamed participants in the round, but Accel provided the “majority” of the investment, according to Lower.

Snyder co-founded Lower in 2014 with the goal of making the homebuying process simpler for consumers. The company launched with Homeside, its retail brand that Snyder describes as “a tech-leveraged retail mortgage bank” that works with realtors and builders, among others. In 2018, the company launched the website for Lower, its direct-to-consumer digital lending brand with the mission of making its platform a one-stop shop where consumers can go online to save for a home, obtain or refinance a mortgage and get insurance through its marketplace. This year, it launched the Lower mobile app with a savings account.

Sitting (L to R): Co-founders Dan Snyder, Grayson Hanes
Standing (L to R): Co-founders Mike Baynes, Chris Miller
Not pictured: Robert Tyson; Image credit: Lower

Over the years, Lower has funded billions of dollars in loans and notched an impressive $300 million in revenue in 2020 after doubling revenue every year, according to Snyder.

“Our history is maybe a little atypical of fintech companies today,” he told TechCrunch. “We’ve had a view going back to the start of the company that we wanted to run it profitably. That’s been one of our pillars, so that’s what we’ve done. Also, we all grew up in the mortgage industry, so we saw firsthand the size of the market, but also how broken it was, so we wanted to change it.”

In launching the direct-to-consumer digital lending brand, the company was working to make the homebuying process more “digital, transparent and easier for consumers to access,” Snyder said.

At the same time, the company didn’t want to lose the human touch.

“We tried to design the app flow in a way where you can get as far along as you can in the application but if you want, at any point in time, to talk or chat with someone, we’re available,” Snyder added.

Image Credits: Lower

Lower’s typical customer is the millennial and now Gen Z who’s aspiring to own their first home, according to Snyder.

“They might be thinking, ‘OK, I might be living in an apartment now, but in the next few years I’m going to meet someone and/or have a child and I want to unlock the investment that is a home,’ ” he told TechCrunch. “And we’ll help them on that journey.”

Lower’s recently launched new app offers a deposit account it’s dubbed “HomeFund.” The interest-bearing FDIC-insured deposit account offers a 0.75% Annual Percentage Yield and is designed to help consumers save for a home with a “dollar-for-dollar match in rewards” up to the first $1,000 saved, Snyder said.

Lower works with more than 35 major insurance carriers nationally, including Nationwide, Liberty Mutual and Allstate. It has more than 1,600 employees, about half of which are based in Lower’s home state. That’s up from about 650 employees in June of 2020.

Looking ahead, the company plans to add more services and has an “aggressive roadmap” for adding new features to its platform. Today, for example, Lower sells primarily to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And while it services the majority of its loans, like many large lenders, it uses a subservicer. That will change, however, in early 2022, when Lower intends to launch its own native servicing platform. 

And while the company intends to continue to run profitably, Snyder said he and his co-founders “think the time is now to gain share.”

“We want to become a global brand, raise money and gain market share,” he added. “We’re going to continue to double down on product and build out our capabilities. We are the best-kept secret in fintech and plan to change that with smart branding, advertising and sponsorships.”

And last but not least, Lower is eyeing the public markets as part of its longer-term roadmap.

“Ultimately, we know we can build a great public company,” Snyder told TechCrunch. “We’re of the scale to be a public company right now, but we’re going to keep our heads down and we’re going to keep building for the next few years and then I think we can be in a spot to be a strong public business.”

Accel’s Locke points out that in the U.S., mortgage and home finance are among the largest financial service markets, and they have primarily been handled by large banks.

“For most consumers, getting a mortgage through these banks continues to be an overly complex, slow-moving process,” Locke told TechCrunch. “We believe by providing consumers a great mobile experience, Lower will gain share from incumbent banks, in the same way that companies like Monzo have in banking or Venmo in payments or Trade Republic and Robinhood in stock trading.” 

Airbank centralizes all your business bank accounts and financial data

By Romain Dillet

Meet Airbank, a startup that is taking advantage of open banking regulation and related APIs to aggregate all your bank accounts. Focused on startups and small and medium companies, the company wants to build an all-in-one banking interface to access financial data, initiate payments, manage cash flow and more.

Airbank just raised a $3 million (€2.5 million) seed round led by Pia d’Iribarne and Jean de la Rochebrochard at New Wave, with Speedinvest and Tiny VC also participating. A handful of business angels are also joining the round, such as Cris Conde (executive in residence at Accel), Luca Ascani (Accel scout) and Marc McCabe (Sequoia scout).

The startup’s value proposition is quite simple and can be easily explained in one screenshot. With Airbank, you can enter your login information for all the bank accounts and related accounts that you use. After that, you can view everything from your Airbank account:

Image Credits: Airbank

Many companies have to deal with multiple bank accounts for several reasons — you may have opened one bank account when you incorporated your company, another bank account to request a loan, a Wise Business account for low foreign transaction fees, a Revolut Business account to get debit cards for everyone, etc.

In addition to bank accounts, chances are you’re also generating revenue with Stripe, PayPal or Shopify. Many executives lose a ton of time connecting to web portals, exporting data as CSV files, importing those files in Microsoft Excel and consolidating all that information.

Airbank automatically refreshes your balances across several accounts. You can see your total balance in multiple currencies. It also can help you reconcile transactions with outstanding invoices, as you can search across multiple accounts at once.

This is just a starting point; Airbank wants to become the only interface for all your banking needs. You can categorize transactions, see how much you’re spending with each supplier, track recurring payments and export everything to Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel. Soon, you’ll be able to use Airbank for cash flow forecasting and automatic reconciliation with your Xero or QuickBooks data.

Open banking isn’t limited to account aggregation. With proper APIs, you should be able to initiate payments from a third-party product. And Airbank plans to take advantage of that as the company is working on payments. As you can manage access rights, Airbank could act as the payment portal for the finance team.

“Open banking has enabled smooth integrations with banks, which we can utilize to offer richer banking and payments experiences for our users. Our vision is to build an all-in-one finance hub that connects all your financial accounts in one place. Our integrations will bring bill payments, expense management, and FX all in a single product that is easy to use,” co-founder and CEO Christopher Zemina said in a statement.

Other startups have been working on cash flow management, such as Agicap, and B2B payments, such as Libeo and Upflow. Airbank is starting with account aggregation and wants to tackle B2B finance in a holistic manner.

Vertical SaaS products have been booming lately. And there’s a reason why the space is quite competitive: There’s still a ton of stuff to do around B2B fintech and specialized software-as-a-service products.

Transmit Security raises $543M Series A to kill off the password

By Carly Page

Transmit Security, a Boston-based startup that’s on a mission to rid the world of passwords, has raised a massive $543 million in Series A funding.

The funding round, said to be the largest Series A investment in cybersecurity history and one of the highest valuations for a bootstrapped company, was led by Insight Partners and General Atlantic, with additional investment from Cyberstarts, Geodesic, SYN Ventures, Vintage, and Artisanal Ventures. 

Transmit Security said it has a pre-money valuation of $2.2 billion, and will use the new funds to expand its reach and investing in key global areas to grow the organization.

Ultimately, however, the funding round will help the company to accelerate its mission to help the world go passwordless. Organizations lose millions of dollars every year due to “inherently unsafe” password-based authentication, according to the startup; not only do weak passwords account for more than 80% of all data breaches, but the average help desk labor cost to reset a single password stands at more than $70. 

Transmit says its biometric-based authenticator is the first natively passwordless identity and risk management solution, and it has already been adopted by a number of big-name brands including Lowes, Santander, and UBS. The solution, which currently handles more than 9,000 authentication requests per second, can reduce account resets by 96%, the company says, and reduces customer authentication from 1 minute to 2 seconds. 

“By eliminating passwords, businesses can immediately reduce churn and cart abandonment and provide superior security for personal data,” said Transmit Security CEO Mickey Boodaei, who co-founded the company in 2014. “Our customers, whether they are in the retail, banking, financial, telecommunications, or automotive sectors, understand that providing an optimized identity experience is a multimillion-dollar challenge. With this latest round of funding from premier partners, we can significantly expand our reach to help rid the world of passwords.”

Transmit Security isn’t the only company that’s on a mission to kill off the password. Microsoft has announced plans to make Windows 10 password-free, and Apple recently previewed Passkeys in iCloud Keychain, a method of passwordless authentication powered by WebAuthn, and Face ID and Touch ID.

Fintech veteran Jitendra Gupta is ready for his new inning — now he is going after banks in India

By Manish Singh

For most people in India, having to engage with banks doesn’t instill a sense of joy. Banks in the South Asian market are notorious for making unannounced spam calls to upsell customers loans and credit cards, even when they have been explicitly asked not to do so.

Moreover, when a customer does reach out to a bank with a query, it can take forever to get the job done. Take ICICI Bank, India’s third largest bank and until recently my only banking partner for over six years, for an example.

It is now in its third month in figuring out who exactly in its relationship with Amazon is supposed to re-issue me a credit card. I have moved on with my life, and it looks like they did, too, likely before they even looked at my query.

Small and medium-sized businesses aren’t a big fan of banks, either. If you operate an early-stage startup, it’s anyone’s guess if you will ever be able to convince a bank to issue you a corporate account. So of course, startups — Razorpay and Open — took it upon themselves to fix this experience.

For consumers, too, in recent years, scores of startups have arrived on the scene to improve this banking experience. Whether you are a teenager, or just out of college, or a working professional, or don’t have a credit score, there are firms that can get you a credit card and loan.

But even these services have a ceiling limit of some sort. And customers aren’t loyal to any startup.

“A customer’s relationship is always with the entity where they park their savings deposit,” said Jitendra Gupta, a high-profile entrepreneur who has spent a decade in the fintech world. Since these customers are not parking their money with fintech, “the startups have been unable to disrupt the bank. That’s the hard reality.”

So what’s the alternative? Gupta, who co-founded CitrusPay (sold to Naspers’ PayU) and served as managing director of PayU, has been thinking about these challenges for more than two years.

“If you really want to change the banking industry, you cannot operate from the side. You have to fight from the centre, where they deposit their money. It’s a very time-consuming process and requires a lot of initial capital and experience with banks,” he told TechCrunch in an interview.

After more than a year and a half of raising about $24 million — from Sequoia Capital India, 3one4 Capital, Amrish Rau, Kunal Shah, Kunal Bahl, Tanglin Venture Partners, Rainmatter and others — Gupta is ready to launch what he believes will address a lot of the issues individuals face with their banks.

His new startup, called Jupiter, wants to bring “delight” to the banking experience, and it will launch in India on Thursday.

“We believe that a bank account should be a smart account, where it gives you insight, shares personalized tips and guides you through attaining some financial discipline,” he said.

A snapshot of the reach of banks and fintech startups in India. Data: CIBIL, Statista, BofA Global Research. Image: BofA

To be sure, Jupiter, too, will offer loans and other financial services to customers. But instead of making irrelevant calls to customers, it will assess which of its customers are running short on money and give the option to take a credit line from its app itself, he said. “The upsell doesn’t need to happen by way of spam. It needs to happen by way of contextualization and personalization.”

“Jupiter has been built in a deep integration with the underlying bank, allowing the consumer to have a frictionless experience for all their banking needs,” said Amrish Rau, chief executive of Pine Labs, co-founder of CitrusPay and longtime friend of Gupta.

The startup, which employs 115 people, has developed a number of products for customers joining on day one. The products include the ability to buy now and pay later on UPI, a feature first offered in the market by Jupiter, and a mutual fund portfolio analyzer. A debit card, in-app chat with a customer service agent, expense categorisation, finding the right card, determining the existing health insurance coverage, and more are ready to ship, the startup said.

Jupiter is currently working on providing zero mark-up on forex transactions, and frictionless two-factor authentication. The startup has published a public Trello page where it has outlined the features it is working on and when it expects to ship them, as well as features suggested by its beta-testing customers. “I want to establish full transparency in what we are working on to build trust with customers,” said Gupta.

Jupiter will have its own customer relationship team that will engage with the startup’s users. The startup, which last month opened a waiting list for customers to sign up, had amassed more than 25,000 applications as of two weeks ago.

Even Jupiter, which one day wishes to disrupt the banking sector, currently has to partner with banks. Its partners are Federal Bank and Axis Bank.

I asked Gupta about the excitement his investors see in Jupiter. “Everyone believes, as you see with fintech giants such as Nubank globally, that we will become a full bank,” he said.

But for the time being, Gupta said he is not looking to partner with more banks. “I don’t want Jupiter to attract customers because they want to bank with Federal or Axis. I want them to come to Jupiter because they want to bank with Jupiter,” he said.

In the next 12 months, the startup hopes to serve more than 1 million customers.

Novo, a neobank for SMBs, banks $41M

By Ingrid Lunden

Small businesses have traditionally been underserved when it comes to IT — they are too big and have too many requirements that can’t be met by consumer products, yet are much too small to afford, implement or thoroughly need apps and other IT build for larger enterprises. But when it comes to neobanks, it feels like there is no shortage of options for the SMB market, nor venture funding being invested to help them grow.

In the latest development, Novo, a neobank that has built a service targeting small businesses, has closed a round of $40.7 million, a Series A that it will be using to continue growing its business, and its platform.

The funding is being led by Valar Ventures with Crosslink Capital, Rainfall Ventures, Red Sea Ventures, and BoxGroup all also participating. The startup is not disclosing valuation but Novo — originally founded in New York in 2018 but now based out of Miami — has racked up 100,000 SMB customers — which it defines as businesses that make between $25,000 and $100,000 in annualized revenues — and has seen $1 billion in lifetime transactions, with growth accelerating in the last couple of years.

There are a wide variety of options for small businesses these days when it comes to going for a banking solution. They include staying with traditional banks (which are starting to add an increasing number of services and perks to retain small business customers), as well as a variety of fintechs — other neobanks, like Novo — that are building banking and related financial tools to cater to startups and other small businesses.

Just doing a quick search, some of the others targeting the sector include Rho, NorthOne, Lili, Mercury, Brex, Hatch, Anna, Tide, Viva Wallet, Open, and many more (and you could argue also players like Amazon, offering other money management and spending tools similar to what neobanks are providing). Some of these are not in the U.S., and some are geared more at startups, or freelancers, but taken together they speak to the opportunity and also the attention that it is getting from the tech industry right now.

As CEO and co-founder Michael Rangel — who hails from Miami — described it to me, one of the key differentiators with Novo is that it’s approaching SMB banking from the point of view of running a small business. By this, he means that typically SMBs are already using a lot of other finance software — on average seven apps per business — to manage their books, payments and other matters, and so Novo has made it easier by way of a “drag and drop” dashboard where an SMB can integrate and view activity across all of those apps in one place. There are “dozens” of integrations currently, he said, and more are being added.

This is the first step, he said. The plan is to build more technology so that the activity between different apps can also be monitored, and potentially automated

“We’re able to see this is your balance and what you should expect,” he said. “The next frontier is to marry the incoming with outgoing. We’re using the funding to build that, and it’s on the roadmap in next six months.”

Novo has yet to bring cash advances or other lending products into its platform, although those too are on the roadmap, but it is also listening to its customers and watching what they want to do on the platform — another reason why it’s clever to make it easy to for those customers to integrate other services into Novo: not only does that solve a pain point for the customer, but it becomes a pretty clear indicator of what customers are doing, and how you could better cater to that.

Listening to the customers is in itself becoming a happy challenge, it seems. Novo launched quietly enough — between 2018 and the end of 2019, it had picked up only 5,000 accounts. But all that changed during 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic, which Rangel describes as “just hockey stick growth. We grew like crazy.”

The reason, he said, is a classic example of why incumbent banks have to catch up with the times. Everyone was locked down at home, and suddenly a lot of people who were either furloughed or laid off were “spinning up businesses,” he said, and that led to many of them needing to open bank accounts. But those who tried to do this with high-street banks were met with a pretty significant barrier: you had to go into the bank in person to authenticate yourself, but either the banks were closed, or people didn’t want to travel to them. That paved the way for Novo (and others) to cater to them.

Its customer numbers shot up to 24,000 in the year.

Then other market forces have also helped it. You might recall that banking app Simple was shut down by BBVA ahead of its merger with PNC; but at the same time, it also shut down Azlo, it’s small business banking service. That led to a significant number of users migrating to other services, and Novo got a huge windfall out of that, too.

In the last six months, Novo grew four-fold, and Rangel attributed a lot of that to ex-Azloans looking for a new home.

The fact that there are so many SMB banking providers out there might mean competition, but it also means fragmentation, and so if a startup emerges that seems to be catching on, it’s going to catch something else, too: the eye of investors.

“The ability of the Novo team to grow the company rapidly during a year where businesses have faced unprecedented challenges is impressive,” said Andrew McCormack, founding partner at Valar Ventures, the firm co-founded by Peter Thiel, another big figure in fintech. “Novo tripled its small business customer base in the first half of 2021! Their custom infrastructure and banking platform put them in prime position to expand their services at an even faster pace as we come out of the health crisis. All of us at Valar Ventures are excited to join this team.”

Fintech all-star Nubank raises a $750M mega round

By Marcella McCarthy

In 2013, Colombian businessman David Velez decided to reinvent the Brazilian banking system. He didn’t speak Portuguese, nor was he an engineer or a banker, but he did have the conviction that the system was broken and that he could fix it. And as a former Sequoia VC, he also had access to capital.

His gut instinct and market analysis were right. Today, Nubank announced a $750 million extension to its Series G (which rang in at $400 million this past January), bringing the round to a total of $1.15 billion and their valuation to $30 billion — $5 billion more than when we covered them in January.

The extension funding was led by Berkshire Hathaway, which put in $500 million, and a number of other investors.

Velez and his team decided now was a good time to raise again, because, “We saw a great opportunity in terms of growth rate and we’re very tiny when compared to the incumbents,” he told TechCrunch.”

Nubank is the biggest digital bank in the world by number of customers: 40 million. The company started as a tech company in Brazil that offered only a fee-free credit card with a line of credit of R$50 (about USD$10). 

It now offers a variety of financial products, including a digital bank account, a debit card, insurance, P2P payment via Pix (the Brazilian equivalent of Zelle), loans, rewards, life insurance and an account and credit card for small business owners. 

Nubank serves unbanked or underserviced citizens in Brazil — about 30% of the population — and this approach can be extremely profitable because there are many more clients available.

The banking system in Brazil is one of the few bureaucracies in the country that is actually quite skillful, but the customer service remains unbearable, and banks charge exorbitant fees for any little transaction. 

Traditionally, the banking industry has been dominated by five major traditional banks: Itaú Unibanco, Banco do Brasil, Bradesco, Santander and Caixa Economica Federal. 

While Brazil remains Nubank’s primary market, the company also offers services in Colombia and Mexico (services launched in Mexico in 2018). The company still only offers the credit card in both countries.

“The momentum we’re seeing in Mexico is terrific. Our Mexican credit card net promoter score (NPS) is 93, which is the highest we’ve had in Nubank history. In Brazil the highest we’ve had was 88,” Velez said.

The company has been on a hiring spree in the last few months, and brought on two heavyweight executives. Matt Swann replaced Ed Wible (the original CTO and co-founder). Wible continues to be an important player in the company, but more in a software developer capacity. Swann previously served as CTO at Bookings.com and StubHub, and as CIO of the Global Consumer Bank at Citi, so he brings years of experience of scaling tech businesses, which is what Nubank is focused on now, though Velez wouldn’t confirm which countries are next.

The other major hire, Arturo Nunez, fills the new role of chief marketing officer. Nunez was head of marketing for Apple Latin America, amongst other roles with Nike and the NBA. 

It may sound a little odd for a tech company not to have had a head of marketing, but Nubank takes pride in having a $0 cost of acquisition (CAC). Instead of spending money on marketing, they spend it on customer service and then rely on word of mouth to get the word out.

Since we last spoke with Velez in January regarding the $400 million Series G, the company went from having 34 million customers to now having 40 million in a span of roughly 6 months. The funds will be used to grow the business, including hiring more people.

“We’ve seen the entire market go digital, especially people who never thought they would,” Velez said. “There is really now an avalanche of all backgrounds [of people] who are getting into digital banking.”

❌