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New Early Stage speakers to tackle growth marketing, media strategy and M&A

By Jordan Crook

In a little less than three months, TechCrunch will bring its Early Stage event to SF for the very first time. Early Stage is meant to bring together more than 50 experts across startup core competencies, from funding to marketing to operation.

Today, I’m pleased to announce another four experts being added to the agenda. We’re thrilled to be joined by Priti Youssef Choksi, Brooke Hammerling, Ethan Smith and Susan Su.


Priti Youssef Choksi

Choksi is a partner on Norwest Venture Partners consumer internet team. Before joining Norwest, she spent nine years in executive roles at Facebook around corporate and business development, leading the company’s M&A efforts. Before Facebook, Choksi spent six years at Google in strategic partnership roles. She was one of the people responsible for setting up the search partnerships with Apple and Mozilla, with top-line revenue from these deals growing from $0 to $4 billion on her watch.

How To Get Your Company Acquired, Not Sold

Learn how to think about M&A as a possible exit opportunity from a former Facebook corporate development executive turned investor. Understand what acquirers are looking for and what questions you should be asking. Create optionality for yourself as you build and grow your company.


Brooke Hammerling

Brooke Hammerling is the founder of The New New Thing, a strategic communications advisory that works with founders to shape the brand narrative. She also founded Brew Media Relations, which was acquired by Freuds in 2016 for a reported $15 million. She has 20 years of experience in the communications field, with a focus on authenticity and relationships at the core of her business. Brands she’s worked with include Live Nation, Framebridge, Refinery 29, Sonos, Splice, GroupMe, Eko and Oracle.

How to Tell The Story Between The Stories

The news never sleeps. Hear from communications veteran Brooke Hammerling, founder of Brew PR and The New New Thing, about how to build a narrative that isn’t driven by press releases and announcements.


Ethan Smith

Ethan Smith is the founder and CEO of Graphite, an SEO and growth marketing agency based out of San Francisco. He’s served as a strategic advisor to Ticketmaster, MasterClass, Thumbtack, and Honey. Before Graphite, Smith held several executive roles in product management and marketing, and has been tapped by organizations like Venturebeat, Marketwatch and INC to speak and write about SEO and growth marketing.

How To Build A High Performance SEO Engine

Hear from Ethan Smith, who has worked with brands like MasterClass, Ticketmaster and Thumbtack, as he shares some of the most effective modern SEO strategies. Starting with a deep understanding of the user and their intent, the most successful modern SEO strategies focus on building a data-driven approach to drive user experience, content, and conversion to ultimately beat the competition.


Susan Su

Susan Su is a startup growth advisor and EIR at Sound Ventures. Su has led startup growth at Stripe, served as an in-house growth advisor at 500 startups, and led the growth marketing as a founding team member at Reforge. After a career that spanned both product and marketing, Su has combined the two to take advantage of the rise of scaled distribution platforms.

Minimum Viable Email

Love it or hate it, email is here to stay. But understanding where it fits into the conversion funnel, and how to maximize its impact can be arduous. Learn from Sound Ventures advisor and EIR Susan Su how to optimize open rates, deliverability, unsubscribes and conversions for consumer and enterprise products alike.


There will be about 50+ breakout sessions at the show, and attendees will have an opportunity to attend at least seven. The sessions will cover all the core topics confronting early-stage founders — up through Series A — as they build a company, from raising capital to building a team to growth. Each breakout session will be led by notables in the startup world on par with the folks we’ve announced today.

Don’t worry about missing a breakout session, because transcripts from each will be available to show attendees. And most of the folks leading the breakout sessions have agreed to hang at the show for at least half the day and participate in CrunchMatch, TechCrunch’s great app to connect founders and investors based on shared interests.

Here’s the fine print. Each of the 50+ breakout sessions is limited to around 100 attendees. We expect a lot more attendees, of course, so signups for each session are on a first-come, first-serve basis. Buy your ticket today and you can sign up for the breakouts we are announcing today. Pass holders will also receive 24-hour advance notice before we announce the next batch. (And yes, you can “drop” a breakout session in favor of a new one, in the event there is a schedule conflict.)

We’re absolutely thrilled for this event, and we hope you are, too. Buy a pass to Early Stage SF 2020 right here!

Interested in sponsoring Early Stage? Hit us up here.

Nigeria is becoming Africa’s unofficial tech capital

By Jake Bright

Africa has one of the world’s fastest growing tech markets and Nigeria is becoming its unofficial capital.

While the West African nation is commonly associated with negative cliches around corruption and terrorism — which persist as serious problems, and influenced the Trump administration’s recent restrictions on Nigerian immigration to the U.S.

Even so, there’s more to the country than Boko Haram or fictitious princes with inheritances.

Nigeria has become a magnet for VC, a hotbed for startup formation and a strategic entry point for Silicon Valley. As a frontier market, there is certainly a volatility to the country’s political and economic trajectory. The nation teeters back and forth between its stereotypical basket-case status and getting its act together to become Africa’s unrivaled superpower.

The upside of that pendulum is why — despite its problems — so much American, Chinese and African tech capital is gravitating to Nigeria.

Demographics

“Whatever you think of Africa, you can’t ignore the numbers,” Africa’s richest man Aliko Dangote told me in 2015, noting that demographics are creating an imperative for global businesses to enter the continent.

Brooke Hammerling launches The New New Thing, a strategic communications advisory

By Jordan Crook

Brooke Hammerling, the strategic communications veteran that brought us BrewPR, announced her new project today.

Dubbed The New New Thing, Hammerling’s new communications advisory wants to help startups bring more authenticity to brand messaging and comms through high-level partnerships with CEOs, founders, and executive leadership teams.

There are a few critical pieces to The New New Thing:

First, Hammerling will not focus on the usual six-month press release strategy that drives communications at most tech startups. The New New Thing isn’t focused as much on an individual product or funding round announcement as much as the high-level strategy of storytelling across the entire brand, including the company and the founder. In fact, the only pre-launch clients Hammerling will be taking on must be female-led and mission driven.

Second, she’ll be working directly with startup leadership teams to craft those narratives paying special attention to the stories in between the stories.

And finally, The New New Thing will have a huge focus on authenticity as a driver of relationships between its clients and the media.

One catalyst for the new project, according to Hammerling, was the evolution of the comms landscape as a whole. Not only is the media’s bullshit detector hyper sensitive, but so is the end-reader. It’s no longer enough to send out the same robotic press release announcing funding.

“I’m bored of seeing the same picture of two male founders announcing their funding for some fintech product that’s going to change the world,” said Hammerling. “There needs to be a fostering of the relationships between CEOs and the people telling their story. Being authentic is really hard for larger organizations, or really any organization. And now, in 2020, there is no option but to be.”

Hammerling explained that getting into the weeds with founders and tackling a storytelling challenge is what she loves doing most. She admits that managing a large team and dealing with the nitty gritty of comms (writing up press releases, pitching speakers for tech conferences, etc.) aren’t her strong suits.

As you might imagine, the launch of The New New Thing means that Hammerling has officially left Brew PR, the firm she founded and sold to Freuds for $15 million.

The New New Thing is part of a newly expanded collective of service providers called Plan A, led by Co-CEOs MT Carney and Andrew Essex. Plan A combines expert service providers from the fields of communications, branding, advertising, creative, and social, among others.

Hammerling will be focusing on early- and growth-stage startups in the tech industry, with a current client list that includes Lemonade, LiveNation, Framebridge, Splice, and Eko.

One example of how The New New Thing works is made clear with Splice. The company is represented by a PR firm that manages the day-to-day news cycle and announcement schedule, while Hammerling works directly with founder and CEO Steve Martocci on the overall narrative that runs through all of that.

When asked about the greatest challenge moving forward, Hammerling’s answer offered a taste of the authenticity and relatability she’s trying to bring out of her clients.

“Can I do this? Do I have the right instincts and guidance for my clients?” said Hammerling. “I think I do and I’ve been successful at that, but how do I maintain that and communicate that to others?”

UN calls for investigation after Saudis linked to Bezos phone hack

By Zack Whittaker

United Nations experts are calling for an investigation after a forensic report said Saudi officials “most likely” used a mobile hacking tool built by mobile spyware maker, the NSO Group, to hack into the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ phone.

Remarks made by U.N. human rights experts on Wednesday said said the Israeli spyware maker’s flagship Pegasus mobile spyware was likely used to exfiltrate gigabytes of data from Bezos’ phone in May 2018, about six months after the Saudi government first obtained the spyware.

It comes a day after news emerged, citing a forensics report commissioned to examine the Amazon founder’s phone, that the malware was delivered from a number belonging to Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. The forensics report, carried out by FTI Consulting, said it was “highly probable” that the phone hack was triggered by a malicious video sent over WhatsApp to Bezos’ phone. Within hours, large amounts of data on Bezos’ phone had been exfiltrated.

U.N. experts Agnes Callamard and Davie Kaye, who were given a copy of the forensics report, said the breach of Bezos’ phone was part of “a pattern of targeted surveillance of perceived opponents and those of broader strategic importance to the Saudi authorities.”

But the report left open the possibility that technology developed by another mobile spyware maker may have been used.

The Saudi government has rejected the claims, calling them “absurd.”

NSO Group said in a statement that its technology “was not used in this instance,” saying its technology “cannot be used on U.S. phone numbers.” The company said any suggestion otherwise was “defamatory” and threatened legal action.

Forensics experts are said to have began looking at Bezos’ phone after he accused the National Enquirer of blackmail last year. In a tell-all Medium post, Bezos described how he was targeted by the tabloid, which obtained and published private text messages and photos from his phone, prompting an investigation into the leak.

The subsequent forensic report, which TechCrunch has not yet seen, claims the initial breach began after Bezos and the Saudi crown prince exchanged phone numbers in April 2018, a month before the hack.

The report said several other prominent figures, including Saudi dissidents and political activists, also had their phones infected with the same mobile malware around the time of the Bezos phone breach. Some whose phones were infected including those close to Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi critic and columnist for the Washington Post — which Bezos owns — who was murdered five months later.

“The information we have received suggests the possible involvement of the Crown Prince in surveillance of Mr. Bezos, in an effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post’s reporting on Saudi Arabia,” the U.N. experts said.

U.S. intelligence concluded that bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s death.

The U.N. experts said the Saudis purchased the Pegasus malware, and used WhatsApp as a way to deliver the malware to Bezos’ phone.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group for creating and using the Pegasus malware, which exploits a since-fixed vulnerability in the the messaging platform. Once exploited, sometimes silently and without the target knowing, the operators can download data from the user’s device. Facebook said at the time more than the malware was delivered on more than 1,400 targeted devices.

The U.N. experts said they will continue to investigate the “growing role of the surveillance industry” used for targeting journalists, human rights defenders, and owners of media outlets.

Amazon did not immediately comment.

2019 Africa Roundup: Jumia IPOs, China goes digital, Nigeria becomes fintech capital

By Jake Bright

2019 brought more global attention to Africa’s tech scene than perhaps any previous year.

A high profile IPO, visits by both Jacks (Ma and Dorsey), and big Chinese startup investment energized that.

The last 12 months served as a grande finale to 10 years that saw triple digit increases in startup formation and VC on the continent.

Here’s an overview of the 2019 market events that captured attention and capped off a decade of rapid growth in African tech.

IPOs

The story of the year is the April IPO on the NYSE of Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia. This was the first listing of a VC backed tech company operating in Africa on a major global exchange —  which brought its own unpredictability.

Founded in 2012, Jumia pioneered much of its infrastructure to sell goods to consumers online in Africa.

With Nigeria as its base market, the Rocket Internet backed company created accompanying delivery and payments services and went on to expand online verticals into 14 Africa countries (though it recently exited a few). Jumia now sells everything from mobile-phones to diapers and offers online services such as food-delivery and classifieds.

Seven years after its operational launch, Jumia’s stock debut kicked off with fanfare in 2019, only to be followed by volatility.

The online retailer gained investor confidence out of the gate, more than doubling its $14.95 opening share price post IPO.

That lasted until May, when Jumia’s stock came under attack from short-seller Andrew Left,  whose firm Citron Research issued a report accusing the company of fraud. The American activist investor’s case was bolstered, in part, by a debate that played out across Africa’s tech ecosystem on Jumia’s legitimacy as an African startup, given its (primarily) European senior management.

The entire affair was further complicated by Jumia’s second quarter earnings call when the company disclosed a fraud perpetrated by some of its employees and sales agents. Jumia’s CEO Sacha Poignonnec emphasized the matter was closed, financially marginal and not the same as Andrew Left’s short-sell claims.

Whatever the balance, Jumia’s 2019 ups and downs cast a cloud over its stock with investors. Since the company’s third-quarter earnings-call, Jumia’s NYSE share-price has lingered at around $6 — less than half of its original $14.95 opening, and roughly 80% lower than its high.

Even with Jumia’s post-IPO rocky road, the continent’s leading e-commerce company still has heap of capital and is on pace to generate over $100 million in revenues in 2019 (albeit with big losses).

The company plans reduce costs by generating more revenue from higher-margin internet services, such as payments and classifieds.

There’s a fairly simple equation for Jumia to rebuild shareholder confidence in 2020: avoid scandals, increase revenues over losses. And now that the company’s publicly traded — with financial reporting requirements — there’ll be four earnings calls a year to evaluate Jumia’s progress.

Jumia may not be the continent’s standout IPO for much longer. Events in 2019 point to Interswitch becoming the second African digital company to list on a global exchange in 2020.  The Nigerian fintech firm confirmed to TechCrunch in November it had reached a billion-dollar unicorn valuation, after a (reported) $200 million investment by Visa.

Founded in 2002 by Mitchell Elegbe, Interswitch created much of the initial infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s (then) predominantly cash-based economy. Interswitch has been teasing a public listing since 2016, but delayed it for various reasons. With the company’s billion-dollar valuation in 2019, that pause is likely to end.

“An [Interswitch] IPO is still very much in the cards; likely sometime in the first half of 2020,” a source with knowledge of the situation told TechCrunch .

China-Africa goes digital

2019 was the year when Chinese actors pivoted to African tech. China is known for its strategic relationship with Africa based (largely) on trade and infrastructure. Over the last 10 years, the country has been less engaged in the continent’s digital-scene.

china africa techThat was until a torrent of investment and partnerships this past year.

July saw Chinese-owned Opera raise $50 million in venture spending to support its growing West African digital commercial network, which includes browser, payments and ride-hail services.

In August, San Francisco and Lagos-based fintech startup Flutterwave partnered with Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba’s Alipay to offer digital payments between Africa and China.

In September, China’s Transsion  — the largest smartphone seller in Africa — listed in an IPO on Shanghai’s new STAR Market. The company raised ≈ $394 million, some of which it is directing toward venture funding and operational expansion in Africa.

The last quarter of 2019 brought a November surprise from China in African tech. Over 15 Chinese investors placed over $240 million in three rounds. Transsion backed consumer payments startup PalmPay raised a $40 million seed, stating its goal to become “Africa’s largest financial services platform.”

Chinese investors also backed Opera-owned OPay’s $120 million raise and East-African trucking logistics company Lori Systems’ (reported) $30 million Series B.

In the new year, TechCrunch will continue to cover the business arc of this surge in Chinese tech investment in Africa. There’ll surely be a number of fresh macro news-points to develop, given the debate (and critique) of China’s engagement with Africa.

Nigeria and fintech

On debate, the case could be made that 2019 was the year when Nigeria become Africa’s unofficial capital for fintech investment and digital finance startups.

Kenya has held this title hereto, with the local success and global acclaim of its M-Pesa mobile-money product. But more founders and VCs are opting for Nigeria as the epicenter for digital finance growth on the continent.Nigeria naira

A rough tally of 2019 TechCrunch coverage — including previously mentioned rounds — pegs fintech related investment in the West African country at around $400 million over the last 12 months. That’s equivalent to roughly one-third of all startup VC raised for the entire continent in 2018, according to Partech stats.

From OPay to PalmPay to Visa — startups, big finance companies and investors are making Nigeria home-base for their digital finance operations and Africa expansion strategies.

The founder of early-stage payment startup ChipperCash, Ham Serunjogi, explained the imperative to operating there. “Nigeria is the largest economy and most populous country in Africa. Its fintech industry is one of the most advanced in Africa, up there with Kenya  and South Africa,” he told TechCrunch in May.

When all the 2019 VC numbers are counted, it will be worth matching up fintech stats for Nigeria to Kenya to see how the countries compared.

Acquisitions

Tech acquisitions continue to be somewhat rare in Africa, but there were several to note in 2019. Two of the continent’s powerhouse tech incubators joined forces in September, when Nigerian innovation center and seed-fund CcHub acquired Nairobi based iHub, for an undisclosed amount.

CChub ihub Acquisition

The acquisition brought together Africa’s most powerful tech hubs by membership networks, volume of programs, startups incubated and global visibility. It also elevated the standing of CcHub’s Bosun Tijani across Africa’s tech ecosystem, as the CEO of the new joint-entity, which also has a VC arm.

CcHub CEO Bosun Tijani1

CcHub/iHub CEO Bosun Tijani

In other acquisition activity, French television company Canal+ acquired the ROK film studio from Nigerian VOD company IROKOtv, for an undisclosed amount. The deal put ROK founder and producer Mary Njoku in charge of a new organization with larger scope and resources.

Many outside Africa aren’t aware that Nigeria’s Nollywood is the Hollywood of the continent and one of the largest film industries in the world (by production volume). Canal+ told TechCrunch it looks to bring Mary and the Nollywood production ethos to produce content in French speaking African countries.

Other notable 2019 African tech takeovers included Kenyan internet company BRCK’s acquisition of ISP Surf, Nigerian digital-lending startup OneFi’s Amplify buy and Merck KGaa’s purchase of Kenya-based online healthtech company ConnectMed.

Moto ride-hail mania

In 2019, Africa’s motorcycle ride-hail market — worth an estimated $4 billion — saw a flurry of investment and expansion by startups looking to scale on-demand taxi services. Uber and Bolt got into the motorcycle taxi business in Africa in 2018.

Ampersand Africa e motorcycle

Ampersand in Rwanda

A number of local and foreign startups have continued to grow in key countries, such as Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya.

A battle for funding and market-share emerged in Nigeria in 2019, between key moto ride-hail startups Max.ng, Gokada, and Opera owned ORide.

The on-demand motorcycle market in Africa has attracted foreign investment and moved toward EV development. In May, MAX.ng raised a $7 million Series A round with participation from Yamaha and is using a portion to pilot renewable energy powered e-motorcycles in Africa.

In August, the government of Rwanda announced a national policy to phase out gas-motorcycle taxis altogether in favor of e-motos, in partnership with early-stage EV startup Ampersand.

New funds

The past year saw several new funding initiatives for Africa’s startups. Senegalese VC investor Marieme Diop spearheaded Dakar Network Angels, a seed-fund for startups in French-speaking Africa — or 24 of the continent’s 54 countries.

Africinvest teamed up with Cathay Innovation to announce the Cathay Africinvest Innovation Fund, a $100+ million capital pool aimed at Series A to C-stage startup investments in fintech, logistics, AI, agtech and edutech.

Accion Venture Lab launched a $24 million fintech fund open to African startups.

And Naspers offered more details on who can pitch to its 1.4 billion rand (≈$100 million) Naspers Foundry fund, which made its first investment in online cleaning services company SweepSouth.

Closed up shop

Like any tech ecosystem, not every startup in Africa killed it or even continued to tread water in 2019. Two e-commerce companies — DealDey in Nigeria and Afrimarket in Ivory Coast — closed up digital shop.

Southern Africa’s Econet Media shut down its Kwese TV digital entertainment business in August.

And South Africa based, Pan-African focused cryptocurrency payment startup Wala ceased operations in June. Founder Tricia Martinez named the continent’s poor infrastructure as one of the culprits to shutting down. A possible signal to the startup’s demise could have been its 2017 ICO, where Wala netted only 4% of its $30 million token-offering.

Africa’s startups go global

2019 saw more startups expand products and business models developed in Africa to new markets abroad. In March, Flexclub — a South African venture that matches investors and drivers to cars for ride-hailing services — announced its expansion to Mexico in a partnership with Uber.

In May, ExtraCrunch profiled three African founded fintech startups — Flutterwave, Migo and ChipperCash — developing their business models strategically in Africa toward plans to expand globally.

By December, Migo (formerly branded Mines) had announced its expansion to Brazil on a $20 million Series B raise.

2020 and beyond

As we look to what could come in the new year and decade for African tech, it’s telling to look back. Ten years ago, there were a lot of “if” questions on whether the continent’s ecosystem could produce certain events: billion dollar startup valuations, IPOs on major exchanges, global expansion, investment from the world’s top VCs.

All those questionable events of the past have become reality in African tech, even if some of them are still in low abundance.

There’s no crystal ball for any innovation ecosystem — not the least Africa’s — but there are several things I’ll be on the lookout for in 2020 and beyond.

Two In the near term, start with what Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey may do around Bitcoin and cryptocurrency on his return to Africa (lookout for an upcoming TechCrunch feature on this).

I’ll also follow the next-phase of e-commerce in Africa, which could pit Jumia more competitively against DHL’s Africa eShop, Opera and China’s Alibaba (which hasn’t yet entered Africa in full).

On a longer-term basis, a development to follow is how the continent’s first wave of millionaire and billionaire tech-founders could disrupt 21st century dynamics in Africa around politics, power, and philanthropy —  hopefully for the better.

More notable 2019 Africa-related coverage @TechCrunch

Uber guarantees space for skis and snowboards with Uber Ski feature

By Kirsten Korosec

Uber is launching a new feature aimed at skiers and snowboarders.

The ride-hailing company said Wednesday that beginning December 17 an Uber Ski icon will pop up on the app that will let customers order a ride with confirmed extra vehicle space or a ski/snowboarding rack.

Uber is launching the feature in 23 U.S. cities located areas near mountain resorts such as Anchorage, Boise, Boston, Eastern Washington, Flagstaff, Arizona and Grand Rapids, Michigan, Green Bay, Wisconsin, Lehigh Valley, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New Hampshire, Portland, Oregon, Portland,Maine,  Salt Lake City, Seattle, Upstate New York, Vermont, Wilkes-Barre Scranton and Worcester, Wyoming. Riders living in Colorado cities such as Colorado Springs, Denver, Fort Collins and the front range of the Rockies where numerous resorts are located will also have the feature.

Uber hasn’t said if it will offer the ski feature outside of the United States.

Uber Ski is the latest of additional features aimed at attracting new users or retaining existing ones. Uber wouldn’t say if a bike option might be next. However, Nundu Janakiram, head of rider experience, said to expect more features like this one.

“No one customer is the same, which is why part of our platform strategy is unlocking capabilities for unique needs, at the right times,” Janakiram said. “Uber Ski is the latest step toward that goal, and we’ll have more to share in the future as we continue to identify ways we can do more in the vein of Uber Ski, Uber Pet, and more for riders that love Uber’s convenience.”

The feature comes with a cost. Riders pay an additional surcharge for the selection, on top of their standard trip fare. Riders will be able to view the Uber Ski surcharge on their receipt, and the surcharge will be added to their upfront price when that option is selected in-app, the company said.

Drivers don’t have to participate in Uber Ski. They can opt-out of Uber Ski trips in the driver preferences menu in the app, while still receiving other eligible trip opportunities, according to the company. If they choose to accept Uber Ski trips, drivers will also receive a significant portion of that surcharge, on top of their standard trip earnings.

Drivers who want to participate will first need to snap and upload a photo of their vehicle to the app’s documents section to confirm eligibility.

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