SoftBank has a plant to loan up to $20 billion to its employees, including CEO Masayoshi Son, for the purposes of having that capital re-invested in SoftBank’s own Vision venture fund, according to a new report from the Wall Street Journal. That’s a highly unusual move that could be risky in terms of how much exposure SoftBank Group has on the whole in terms of its startup bets, but the upside is that it can potentially fill out as much as a fifth of its newly announced second Vision Fund’s total target raise of $108 billion from a highly aligned investor pool.
SoftBank revealed its plans for its second Vision Fund last month, including $38 billion from SoftBank itself, as well as commitments from Apple, Microsoft and more. The company also took a similar approach to its original Vision Fund, WSJ reports, with stakes from employees provided with loans totalling $8 billion of that $100 billion commitment.
The potential pay-off is big, provided the fund has some solid winners that achieve liquidation events that provide big returns that employees can then use to pay off the original loans, walking away with profit. That’s definitely a risk, however, especially in the current global economic client. As WSJ notes, the Uber shares that Vision Fund I acquired are now worth less than what SoftBank originally paid for them according to sources, and SoftBank bet WeWork looks poised to be another company whose IPO might not make that much, if any, money for later stage investors.
Imagine a moving tower made of huge cement bricks weighing 35 metric tons. The movement of these massive blocks is powered by wind or solar power plants and is a way to store the energy those plants generate. Software controls the movement of the blocks automatically, responding to changes in power availability across an electric grid to charge and discharge the power that’s being generated.
The development of this technology is the culmination of years of work at Idealab, the Pasadena, Calif.-based startup incubator, and Energy Vault, the company it spun out to commercialize the technology, has just raised $110 million from SoftBank Vision Fund to take its next steps in the world.
Energy storage remains one of the largest obstacles to the large-scale rollout of renewable energy technologies on utility grids, but utilities, development agencies and private companies are investing billions to bring new energy storage capabilities to market as the technology to store energy improves.
The investment in Energy Vault is just one indicator of the massive market that investors see coming as power companies spend billions on renewables and storage. As The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend, ScottishPower, the U.K.-based utility, is committing to spending $7.2 billion on renewable energy, grid upgrades and storage technologies between 2018 and 2022.
Meanwhile, out in the wilds of Utah, the American subsidiary of Japan’s Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems is working on a joint venture that would create the world’s largest clean energy storage facility. That 1 gigawatt storage would go a long way toward providing renewable power to the Western U.S. power grid and is going to be based on compressed air energy storage, large flow batteries, solid oxide fuel cells and renewable hydrogen storage.
“For 20 years, we’ve been reducing carbon emissions of the U.S. power grid using natural gas in combination with renewable power to replace retiring coal-fired power generation. In California and other states in the western United States, which will soon have retired all of their coal-fired power generation, we need the next step in decarbonization. Mixing natural gas and storage, and eventually using 100% renewable storage, is that next step,” said Paul Browning, president and CEO of MHPS Americas.
Energy Vault’s technology could also be used in these kinds of remote locations, according to chief executive Robert Piconi.
Energy Vault’s storage technology certainly isn’t going to be ubiquitous in highly populated areas, but the company’s towers of blocks can work well in remote locations and have a lower cost than chemical storage options, Piconi said.
“What you’re seeing there on some of the battery side is the need in the market for a mobile solution that isn’t tied to topography,” Piconi said. “We obviously aren’t putting these systems in urban areas or the middle of cities.”
For areas that need larger-scale storage that’s a bit more flexible there are storage solutions like Tesla’s new Megapack.
The Megapack comes fully assembled — including battery modules, bi-directional inverters, a thermal management system, an AC breaker and controls — and can store up to 3 megawatt-hours of energy with a 1.5 megawatt inverter capacity.
The Energy Vault storage system is made for much, much larger storage capacity. Each tower can store between 20 and 80 megawatt hours at a cost of 6 cents per kilowatt hour (on a levelized cost basis), according to Piconi.
The first facility that Energy Vault is developing is a 35 megawatt-hour system in Northern Italy, and there are other undisclosed contracts with an undisclosed number of customers on four continents, according to the company.
One place where Piconi sees particular applicability for Energy Vault’s technology is around desalination plants in places like sub-Saharan Africa or desert areas.
Backing Energy Vault’s new storage technology are a clutch of investors, including Neotribe Ventures, Cemex Ventures, Idealab and SoftBank.
It’s down to the wire folks. Today’s the last day you can save $100 on your ticket to TC Sessions: Enterprise 2019, which takes place on September 5 at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco. The deadline expires in mere hours — at 11:59 p.m. (PT). Get the best possible price and buy your early-bird ticket right now.
We expect more than 1,000 attendees representing the enterprise software community’s best and brightest. We’re talking founders of companies in every stage and CIOs and systems architects from some of the biggest multinationals. And, of course, managing partners from the most influential venture and corporate investment firms.
You can expect a full day of main-stage interviews and panel discussions, plus break-out sessions and speaker Q&As. TechCrunch editors will dig into the big issues enterprise software companies face today along with emerging trends and technologies.
Data, for example, is a mighty hot topic, and you’ll hear a lot more about it during a session entitled, Innovation Break: Data – Who Owns It?: Enterprises have historically competed by being closed entities, keeping a closed architecture and innovating internally. When applying this closed approach to the hottest new commodity, data, it simply does not work anymore. But as enterprises, startups and public institutions open themselves up, how open is too open? Hear from leaders who explore data ownership and the questions that need to be answered before the data floodgates are opened. Sponsored by SAP .
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Paytm, India’s biggest mobile payments firm, now has 10 million customers in Japan, the company said as it pushes to expand its reach in international markets.
Paytm entered Japan last October after forming a joint venture with SoftBank and Yahoo Japan called PayPay.
In addition to 10 million users, PayPay is now supported by 1 million local stores in Japan, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and CEO of Paytm said Thursday. The mobile payment services has clocked 100 million transactions to date, he claimed.
“Thank you India for your inspiration and giving us chance to build world class tech,” he posted in a tweet.
More to follow…
Cybereason, which uses machine learning to increase the number of endpoints a single analyst can manage across a network of distributed resources, has raised $200 million in new financing from SoftBank Group and its affiliates.
It’s a sign of the belief that SoftBank has in the technology, since the Japanese investment firm is basically doubling down on commitments it made to the Boston-based company four years ago.
The company first came to our attention five years ago when it raised a $25 million financing from investors including CRV, Spark Capital and Lockheed Martin.
Cybereason’s technology processes and analyzes data in real-time across an organization’s daily operations and relationships. It looks for anomalies in behavior across nodes on networks and uses those anomalies to flag suspicious activity.
The company also provides reporting tools to inform customers of the root cause, the timeline, the person involved in the breach or breaches, what tools they use and what information was being disseminated within and outside of the organization.
For founder Lior Div, Cybereason’s work is the continuation of the six years of training and service he spent working with the Israeli army’s 8200 Unit, the military incubator for half of the security startups pitching their wares today. After his time in the military, Div worked for the Israei government as a private contractor reverse engineering hacking operations.
Over the last two years, Cybereason has expanded the scope of its service to a network that spans 6 million endpoints tracked by 500 employees with offices in Boston, Tel Aviv, Tokyo and London.
“Cybereason’s big data analytics approach to mitigating cyber risk has fueled explosive expansion at the leading edge of the EDR domain, disrupting the EPP market. We are leading the wave, becoming the world’s most reliable and effective endpoint prevention and detection solution because of our technology, our people and our partners,” said Div, in a statement. “We help all security teams prevent more attacks, sooner, in ways that enable understanding and taking decisive action faster.”
The company said it will use the new funding to accelerate its sales and marketing efforts across all geographies and push further ahead with research and development to make more of its security operations autonomous.
“Today, there is a shortage of more than three million level 1-3 analysts,” said Yonatan Striem-Amit, chief technology officer and Co-founder, Cybereason, in a statement. “The new autonomous SOC enables SOC teams of the future to harness technology where manual work is being relied on today and it will elevate L1 analysts to spend time on higher value tasks and accelerate the advanced analysis L3 analysts do.”
That attack, which was either conducted by Chinese-backed actors or made to look like it was conducted by Chinese-backed actors, according to Cybereason targeted a select group of users in an effort to acquire cell phone records.
As we wrote at the time:
… hackers have systematically broken in to more than 10 cell networks around the world to date over the past seven years to obtain massive amounts of call records — including times and dates of calls, and their cell-based locations — on at least 20 individuals.
Researchers at Boston-based Cybereason, who discovered the operationand shared their findings with TechCrunch, said the hackers could track the physical location of any customer of the hacked telcos — including spies and politicians — using the call records.
Lior Div, Cybereason’s co-founder and chief executive, told TechCrunch it’s “massive-scale” espionage.
Call detail records — or CDRs — are the crown jewels of any intelligence agency’s collection efforts. These call records are highly detailed metadata logs generated by a phone provider to connect calls and messages from one person to another. Although they don’t include the recordings of calls or the contents of messages, they can offer detailed insight into a person’s life. The National Security Agency has for years controversially collected the call records of Americans from cell providers like AT&T and Verizon (which owns TechCrunch), despite the questionable legality.
It’s not the first time that Cybereason has uncovered major security threats.
Back when it had just raised capital from CRV and Spark, Cybereason’s chief executive was touting its work with a defense contractor who’d been hacked. Again, the suspected culprit was the Chinese government.
As we reported, during one of the early product demos for a private defense contractor, Cybereason identified a full-blown attack by the Chinese — ten thousand usernames and passwords were leaked, and the attackers had access to nearly half of the organization on a daily basis.
The security breach was too sensitive to be shared with the press, but Div says that the FBI was involved and that the company had no indication that they were being hacked until Cybereason detected it.
The real estate market regularly goes through ups and downs, but today comes big news for a startup in the space that has built a platform that it believes can help all players in it — buyers, sellers, and those who help with the buying and selling — no matter what stage of the cycle we happen to be in.
Compass — a company that has built a three-sided marketplace for the industry, along with a wide set of algorithms to help make it work — has raised a $370 million round of funding, money that it plans to use to continue expanding to more markets, as well as for more tech and product development. Sources tell me that it’s also now eyeing up an IPO, likely sometime in the next 24 months.
“From day one we knew, when we had just a small amount of people at the company, we had a very clear focus,” co-founder and chairman Ori Allon said in an interview. “We wanted to bring more tech and data and transparency to real estate, and i think it’s paid off.”
Based out of New York, Compass earlier this year established an engineering hub in Seattle run by the former CTO of AI for Microsoft, Joseph Sirosh . It’s continuing to hire there and elsewhere (alongside also making acqui-hires for talent).
The Series G funding — which brings the total raised by Compass to $1.5 billion — is coming in at a $6.4 billion valuation, a huge uptick for the company compared to its $4.4 billion valuation less than a year ago. Part of the reason for that has been the company’s massive growth: in the last quarter, its revenues were up 250% compared to Q2 2018.
The investor list for this latest round includes previous investors Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB), Dragoneer Investment Group, and SoftBank Vision Fund. Other backers since it was first founded in 2012 have included Founders Fund, the Qatar Investment Authority (a construction and real estate giant), Fidelity and others.
The company was co-founded by Ori Allon and Robert Reffkin — respectively the chairman and CEO, pictured here on the right and left of COO Maelle Gavet. The company first caught my eye because of Allon. An engineer by training, he has a string of notable prior successes in the field of search to his name (his two previous startups were sold to Google and Twitter, which used them as the basis of large areas of their search and discovery algorithms).
In this latest entrepreneurial foray, Allon’s vision of using machine learning algorithms to improve decisions that humans make has been tailored to the specific vertical of real estate.
The platform is not a mere marketplace to connect buyers to real estate agents to sellers, but an engine that helps figure out pricing, timing for sales, how to stage homes (and more recently how to improve them with actual building work by way of Compass Concierge) to get the best prices and best sales.
It also helps real estate agents manage their time and their customers (by way of an acquisition it made of CRM platform Contactually earlier this year). Starting with high-end homes for private individuals, Compass has expanded to commercial real estate and a much wider set of price brackets.
There is a wide opportunity for vertical search businesses at the moment. People want more accurate and targeted information to make purchasing decisions; and companies that are in the business of providing information (and selling things) are keen for better platforms to bring in online visitors and increase their conversions.
I understand that this has led to Compass getting approached for acquisitions, but that is not in the blueprint for this real estate startup: the longer term plan will be to take the company public, likely in the next 24 months.
“It has been incredible to see the growth of our Product & Engineering team, including the addition of Joseph Sirosh as CTO,” said Compass Founder & Executive Chairman Ori Allon, in a statement. “We are excited to partner with new investors, and deepen our relationship with our existing partners to accelerate our growth and further our technology advancements.”
Grab — the on-demand transportation app worth $14 billion that is the Uber of Southeast Asia — today announced how it would be using some of the $7 billion or so that it has raised to date: $2 billion provided by SoftBank is being earmarked Grab’s operations in Indonesia — the biggest economy in Southeast Asia — over the next five years, to help it go head-to-head with local rival Gojek.
Specifically, Grab said it and SoftBank met with Indonesian government officials and have agreed to use the money to help modernise the country’s transportation infrastructure and economy with the development of an electronic vehicle “ecosystem”, new geo-mapping solutions, and the establishment of a second headquarters for Grab in Jakarta focused on R&D for Indonesia and the wider region, to sit alongside its existing HQ in Singapore.
Grab has confirmed that this investment news does not affect the company’s valuation as it’s not fresh funding — although it looks like it might lead to another, new SoftBank injection in Grab, too.
“I’d like to invest more… We would invest (in) Grab more, and also encourage to invest more in other companies,” SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son said in a press conference earlier today. “We will create a second headquarters of Grab in Indonesia, and become 5th unicorn and also invest $2b through Grab. On top of that, we will invest more.”
Grab last raised money just four weeks ago, $300 million from Invesco as part of a larger, ongoing Series H that it wants to use in part for acquisitions. That round is already at around $4.5 billion, with SoftBank having already put in just under $1.5 billion. This $2 billion is on top of that previous round, the company said today.
The company’s last reported valuation from a couple of months ago was around $14 billion, a figure that we have been able to confirm remains the same today.
“With our presence in 224 cities, Indonesia is our largest market and we are committed to long-term sustainable development of the country,” said Anthony Tan, CEO of Grab, in a statement. “We are delighted to facilitate this SoftBank investment, as we believe by investing in digitizing critical services and infrastructure, we hope to accelerate Indonesia’s ambition to become the largest digital economy in the region and improve the livelihoods of millions in the country.” Indonesia accounts for the lion’s share of Grab’s business in terms of total footprint: its in 338 countries overall, meaning this country accounts for two-thirds of the whole list.
The news puts Grab head to head with another big on-demand transportation startup Gojek: the two were already rivals in the region, but GoJek is based out of Jakarta and has been the dominant player in that specific market up to now.
Indeed, the deal is notable not just for the amount, but for how it casts both Grab and SoftBank as allies of the government, not just accepted as businesses but endorsed as key players in helping improve the Indonesian economy and how the country is able to deliver critical services like healthcare and transportation, as well as give more services to drive the growth of “micro-entrepreneurs” by way of Grab-Kudo, the payments startup in the country that Grab acquired in 2017 for less than $100 million.
Given the track record that companies like Uber have had in locking horns with regulators, this puts Grab immediately into a strong position in terms of introducing and running with new services in the future. Its restaurant delivery business, GrabFood, is already the largest in the region, it claimed today.
Grab said the financial commitment was the result of a meeting between Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, Masayoshi Son, Chairman & CEO of SoftBank Group, Anthony Tan, CEO of Grab and Ridzki Kramadibrata, President of Grab Indonesia, at the Merdeka Palace in Jakarta.
“Indonesia’s technology sector has huge potential,” said Son in a statement. “I’m very happy to be investing $2 billion into the future of Indonesia through Grab.”
Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Binsar Panjaitan also had words supporting the deal: “Supported by the growing economy, Indonesia has a good investment climate where we are working together to boost the ease of investment in Indonesia,” he said. “This investment is evidence that Indonesia has been on the radar of investors, especially in the technology sector. We look forward to working with Grab, the fifth unicorn in Indonesia, and SoftBank to empower SMEs, accelerate tourism, and improving health services.”
This deal is a win on a couple of levels for Grab.
Most obviously, it’s giving the company a huge injection of capital to continue expanding its business aggressively in what is the biggest economy in Southeast Asia, with GDP of around $1 trillion annually.
A well-worn strategy by on-demand transportation companies — typified by others like Uber, Lyft and Didi — is to go big and go fast in order to establish a market presence among drivers and passengers, which can be used as a foothold to expand into other areas like food or package delivery and to then increase prices to improve margins.
Given that Indonesia is Gojek’s home country, and given that Indonesia is one of the biggest markets in the region, this makes it one of the most important territories for Grab to — err — grab.
“Grab is an Indonesia-focused company,” said Ridzki Kramadibrata, president of Grab Indonesia, in a statement today. “Having our second headquarters in Jakarta will allow us to better serve the needs of all Indonesians and those from emerging economies in the region. As a technology decacorn, Grab very well understands the needs and challenges we have here. We are also well positioned to support more high tech industries and infrastructure companies originating from Indonesia.”
On another front, this is an important strategy for the company on the regulatory and government front.
In a climate where it’s not unusual to see companies banned from operating in markets where they have run afoul of officials and the public, Grab is essentially buying its way into working with the state, and actually taking a commercial role in building its infrastructure. This — offering help with building infrastructure and simply passing on some of its experience and learnings — is a route that Didi has also been taking to make its way into new markets.
Grab said that it has invested $1 billion to date in Indonesia before now, and it said that its contribution to the economy in 2018 was $3.5 billion (48.9 trillion Indonesian rupiahs).
Updated to clarify that this is NOT a new infusion of capital, but a specification of how existing investments will be used. Meanwhile, Grab is still raising money and SoftBank said it wants to invest more.
Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a weekend newsletter that dives into the week’s noteworthy startups and venture capital news. Before I jump into today’s topic, let’s catch up a bit. Last week, I noted some challenges plaguing mental health tech startups. Before that, I wrote about Zoom and Superhuman’s PR disasters.
Anyway, onto the subject on everyone’s mind this week: SoftBank’s second Vision Fund.
Well into the evening on Thursday, SoftBank announced a target of $108 billion for the Vision Fund 2. Yes, you read that correctly, $108 billion. SoftBank indeed plans to raise even more capital for its sophomore vehicle than it did for the record-breaking debut vision fund of $98 billion, which was majority-backed by the government funds of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, as well as Apple, Foxconn and several other limited partners.
Its upcoming fund, to which SoftBank itself has committed $38 billion, has attracted investment from the National Investment Corporation of National Bank of Kazakhstan, Apple, Foxconn, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft and more. Microsoft, a new LP for SoftBank, reportedly hopped on board with the Japanese telecom giant as part of a grand scheme to convince the massive fund’s portfolio companies to transition to Microsoft Azure, the company’s cloud platform that competes with Amazon Web Services . Here’s more on that and some analysis from TechCrunch editor Jonathan Shieber.
News of the second Vision Fund comes as somewhat of a surprise. We’d heard SoftBank was having some trouble landing commitments for the effort. Why? Well, because SoftBank’s investments have included a wide-range of upstarts, including some uncertain bets. Brandless, a company into which SoftBank injected a lot of money, has struggled in recent months, for example. Wag is said to be going downhill fast. And WeWork, backed with billions from SoftBank, still has a lot to prove.
Here’s everything else we know about The Vision Fund 2:
On to other news…
The company made headlines again this week after word slipped it was accelerating its IPO plans and targeting a September listing. We don’t know much about its IPO plans yet as we are still waiting on the co-working business to unveil its S-1 filing. Whether WeWork can match or exceed its current private market valuation of $47 billion is unlikely. I expect it will pull an Uber and struggle, for quite some time, to earn a market cap larger than what VCs imagined it was worth months earlier.
The consumer financial app made headlines twice this week. The first time because it raised a whopping $323 million at a $7.6 billion valuation. That is a whole lot of money for a business that just raised a similarly sized monster round one year ago. In fact, it left us wondering, why the hell is Robinhood worth $7.6 billion? Then, in a major security faux pas, the company revealed it has been storing user passwords in plaintext. So, go change your Robinhood password and don’t trust any business to value your security. Sigh.
While we’re on the subject on fintech, TechCrunch editor Danny Crichton noted this week the rise of mega-rounds in the fintech space. This week, it was personalized banking app MoneyLion, which raised $100 million at a near unicorn valuation. Last week, it was N26, which raised another $170 million on top of its $300 million round earlier this year. Brex raised another $100 million last month on top of its $125 million Series C from late last year. Meanwhile, companies like payments platform Stripe, savings and investment platform Raisin, traveler lender Uplift, mortgage backers Blend and Better and savings depositor Acorns have also raised massive new rounds this year. Naturally, VC investment in fintech is poised to reach record levels this year, according to PitchBook.
Arianna Huffington, the CEO of Thrive Global, stepped down from Uber’s board of directors this week, a team she had been apart of since 2016. She addressed the news in a tweet, explaining that there were no disagreements between her and the company, rather, she was busy and had other things to focus on. Fair. Benchmark’s Matt Cohler also stepped down from the board this week, which leads us to believe the ride-hailing giant’s advisors are in a period of transition. If you remember, Uber’s first employee and longtime board member Ryan Graves stepped down from the board in May, just after the company’s IPO.
Today I told my fellow @Uber board members that given @Thrive's growth, I will no longer be able to give my board duties the attention they deserve, so I will be stepping down. I look forward to watching Uber go from strength to strength! Here is the email I sent to the board: pic.twitter.com/sck0CPLwAV
— Arianna Huffington (@ariannahuff) July 24, 2019
Unity, now valued at $6B, raising up to $525M
Bird is raising a Sequoia-led Series D at $2.5B valuation
SMB payroll startup Gusto raises $200M Series D
Elon Musk’s Boring Company snags $120M
a16z values camping business HipCamp at $127M
An inside look at the startup behind Ashton Kutcher’s weird tweets
Dataplor raises $2M to digitize small businesses in Latin America
While we’re on the subject of amazing TechCrunch #content, it’s probably time for a reminder for all of you to sign up for Extra Crunch. For a low price, you can learn more about the startups and venture capital ecosystem through exclusive deep dives, Q&As, newsletters, resources and recommendations and fundamental startup how-to guides. Here are some of my current favorite EC posts:
If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Equity co-host Alex Wilhelm, TechCrunch editor Danny Crichton and I unpack Robinhood’s valuation and argue about scooter startups. Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Overcast and Spotify.
That’s all, folks.
SoftBank Group announced today that it will launch its second Vision Fund with participation from Apple, Foxconn, Microsoft and other tech companies and investors. Called the Vision Fund 2, the fund will focus on AI-based technology. SoftBank said the fund’s capital has reached about $108 billion, based on memoranda of understandings. SoftBank Group’s own investment in the fund will be $38 billion.
It is worth noting that the second Vision Fund’s list of expected limited partners does not currently include any participants from the Saudi Arabia government (the first Vision Fund’s close ties to people, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who have been implicated in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has understandably been a major source of concern for investors, companies and human rights observers).
But SoftBank Group also said it is still in discussions with other participants and that the total amount of the fund is expected to increase. The full list of participants who have signed MOUs so far are: “Apple, Foxconn Technology Group, Microsoft Corporation, Mizuho Bank, Ltd., Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation, MUFG Bank, Ltd., The Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company, Limited, Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank, Limited, SMBC Nikko Securities Inc., Daiwa Securities Group Inc., National Investment Corporation of National Bank of Kazakhstan, Standard Chartered Bank, and major participants from Taiwan.”
SoftBank’s intention to launch Vision Fund 2 was first reported earlier this week by The Wall Street Journal. The new fund is expected to decrease SoftBank’s reliance on Saudi Arabian investment and also potentially change the relationship between startups, corporate giants like Microsoft and investors.
The second Vision Fund could help SoftBank extend its position as the most influential investor globally. Through its first $97 billion Vision Fund, the giant invested in dozens of high-profile growing companies, including ride-hailing giants Didi Chuxing and Grab, and India-based grocery delivery startup Grofers, payments firm Paytm and budget lodging startup Oyo.
The maiden Vision Fund, which was announced in October 2016 and began investing in early 2017, has earned 62% returns to date, SoftBank said last month. SoftBank, known for consistently cutting checks of $100 million and larger, has invested in 24 of 377 unicorns globally (companies with valuation of $1 billion or more), according to research firm CB Insights.
The rumored involvement of Microsoft in financing SoftBank Vision Fund II (electric boogaloo?) is interesting for what it may indicate about how the relationship between venture investors, startups and the large corporations that dominate the tech industry are changing.
If the name of the game is platform and services, then corporate behemoths like Microsoft, Alphabet, Amazon and Apple are in interesting positions to invest in startups as a flywheel for growth in some of their most profitable and strategic business units.
To some extent this has always been true, but it’s becoming more important now as web services become larger slices of the corporate balance sheet at these three companies (particularly — although IBM is also playing in this game). Basically, like corporate accelerators and venture arms, investing in SoftBank is another service that’s being potentially offered to lock in startups to corporate cloud ecosystems.
While there are no guarantees that a nudge from an investor to use one tech platform for web services over another would make any difference, it’s clear that big tech companies like Amazon, Alphabet and Microsoft are all over startups to use one web stack over another.
Amazon has tied itself ever more tightly to the Techstars ecosystem of incubators for new tech companies, Microsoft has its own corporate accelerator programs and investment arm and Alphabet does the same.
As technology continues to advance, the big companies have more services they can offer to tech companies that will be increasingly more compelling and drive increasing revenue.
All three big companies mentioned above (and even IBM, bless its big blue non-existent heart) have machine learning tools that they’d love to provide as a service to startups as well. And even as IBM sunsets Watson as a balance sheet item (an event that was an elementary conclusion to anyone who has tracked its long, slow spiral), machine learning services are going to become a larger slice of revenue for the providers who can effectively tie startups into those services.
Most entrepreneurs pay lip service to the fact that enhanced algorithms are going to become table stakes in new product offerings so observers can watch that become another engine of growth for the big companies that can get it right.
Also, startups are going to increasingly become a sales channel for big tech, even as big tech has traditionally been a sales channel for startups.
Software as a service businesses using a freemium business model have an easier time getting into a corporate environment than Microsoft or Google . And even as the productivity suites from these companies battle it out (Verizon, FWIW, is team Google for now), some of the money flowing to a SaaS company’s coffers from a big corporate entity will ultimately wind up in either Microsoft, Amazon or Alphabet’s returns.
This model also helps venture investors, who now have more assurance that there will be late-stage capital to bolster their businesses (including really, really bad ones), although most traditional firms have a love-hate relationship with Masayoshi Son’s gargantuan investment vehicle.
Finally, there’s the simple fact that divorcing SoftBank from Saudi Arabia’s journalist-killing murder money is a good thing for the firm and the larger technology industry, which has enough moral conundrums to consider without adding to the mix another problematic geopolitical relationship.
SoftBank is said to be preparing the announcement of a $40 billion investment in its second Vision Fund, according to a new report from The Wall Street Journal. News of the mammoth investment comes after weeks of rumors the Japanese telecom giant was struggling to secure capital for its second fund, citing lukewarm reception from investors of the firm’s initial Vision Fund.
SoftBank declined to comment.
Goldman Sachs and Standard Chartered are amongst the first confirmed investors in the second Vision Fund. SoftBank is reportedly in talks with Microsoft to invest in the fund under the condition that SoftBank encourage its portfolio companies to transition away from Amazon Web Services to Microsoft’s Azure, the company’s cloud platform. Microsoft declined to comment.
The Department of Justice is set to announce its approval of T-Mobile’s merger with Sprint, majority-owned by SoftBank, as soon as this week. Once the merger is confirmed, SoftBank is expected to deploy additional capital to its sophomore Vision Fund.
The debut SoftBank Vision Fund, led by SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son, has been making headlines since plans for the massive vehicle were announced in late 2016. In May 2017, the firm held a first close on $93 billion, later increasing the fund’s size to $98 billion. The fund has a general focus on global tech companies across industries including IoT, AI, robotics, mobile applications & computing, cloud technologies & software, consumer tech and fintech. To date, it’s invested large sums in Brandless, WeWork, Ola, Grab, Didi Chuxing, Uber, Lemonade and several others.
The debut fund’s largest investors are Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and Abu Dhabi’s national wealth fund, a fact that’s ignited a debate across Silicon Valley on the ethics of accepting capital from Saudi Arabia, a country responsible for numerous human rights abuses. Apple, Qualcomm and Foxconn Technology are among the first Vision Fund’s other LPs.
Car shoppers now have several new options to avoid long-term debt and commitments. Automakers and startups alike are increasingly offering services that give buyers new opportunities and greater flexibility around owning and using vehicles.
In the first part of this feature, we explored the different startups attempting to change car buying. But not everyone wants to buy a car. After all, a vehicle traditionally loses its value at a dramatic rate.
Some startups are attempting to reinvent car ownership rather than car buying.
My favorite car blog Jalopnik said it best: “Cars Sales Could Be Heading Straight Into the Toilet.” Citing a Bloomberg report, the site explains automakers may have had the worst first half for new-vehicle retail sales since 2013. Car sales are tanking, but people still need cars.
Companies like Fair are offering new types of leases combining a traditional auto financing option with modern conveniences. Even car makers are looking at different ways to move vehicles from dealer lots.
Fair was founded in 2016 by an all-star team made up of automotive, retail and banking executives including Scott Painter, former founder and CEO of TrueCar.
Autonomous delivery company Udelv has signed yet another partner to launch a new pilot of its self-driving goods delivery service: Texas-based supermarket chain H-E-B Group. The pilot will provide service to customers in Olmos Park, just outside of downtown San Antonio where the grocery retailer is based.
California-based Udelv will provide H-E-B with one of its Newton second-generation autonomous delivery vehicles, which are already in service in trials in the Bay Area, Arizona and Houston providing deliveries on behalf of some of Udelv’s other clients, which include Walmart among others.
Udelv CEO and founder Daniel Laury explained in an interview that they’re very excited to be partnering with H-E-B, because of the company’s reach in Texas, where it’s the largest grocery chain with approximately 400 stores. This initial phase only covers one car and one store, and during this part of the pilot the vehicle will have a safety driver on board. But the plan includes the option to expand the partnership to cover more vehicles and eventually achieve full driverless operation.
“They’re really at the forefront of technology, in the areas where they need to be,” Laury said. “It’s a very impressive company.”
For its part, H-E-B Group has been in discussion with a number of potential partners for autonomous deliver trials, and according to Paul Tepfenhart, SVP of Omnichannel and Emerging Technologies at H-E-B, but it liked Udelv specifically because of their safety record, and because they didn’t just come in with a set plan and a fully formed off-the-shelf offering – they truly partnered with HEB on what the final deployment of the pilot would look like.
Both Tepfenhart and Laury emphasized the importance of customer experience in providing autonomous solutions, and Laury noted that he thinks Udelv’s unique advantage in the increasingly competitive autonomous curbside delivery business is its attention to the robotics of the actual delivery and storage components of its custom vehicle.
“The reason I think we’re we’ve been so successful, is because we focused a lot on the delivery robotics,” Laury explained. “If you think about it, there’s no autonomous delivery business that works if you don’t have the robotics aspect of it figured out also. You can have an autonomous vehicle, but if you don’t have an automated cargo space where merchants can load [their goods] and consumers can unload the vehicle by themselves, you have no business.”
Udelv also thinks that it has an advantage when it comes to its business model, which aims to generate revenue now, in exchange for providing actual value to paying customers, rather than counting on being supported entirely through funding from a wealthy investor or deep-pocketed corporate partners. Laury likens it to Tesla’s approach, where it actually has over 500,000 vehicles on the road helping it build its autonomous technology – but all of those are operated by paying customers who get all the benefits of owing their cars today.
“We want to be the Tesla of autonomous delivery,” Laury said. “If you think about it, Tesla has got 500,000 vehicles on the road […] if you think about this, for of all the the cars in the world that have some level of automated driver assistance (ADAS) or autonomy, I think Tesla’s 90% of them – and they get the customers to pay a ridiculous amount of money for that. Everybody else in the business is getting funding from something else. Waymo is getting funding from search; Cruise is getting funding from GM and SoftBank and others, Nuro is getting funding from SoftBank. So, pretty much everybody else is getting funding from a source that’s a different source from the actual business they’re supposed to be in.”
Laury says that Udelv’s unique strength is in the ability the company has to provide value to partners like HEB today, through its focus on robotics and solving problems like engineering the robotics of the loading and customer pick-up experience, which puts it in a unique place where it can fund its own research through revenue-generating services that can be offered in-market now, rather than ten years from now.
India’s growing number of startups now have one additional VC fund that will listen to their business ideas. A91 Partners, a new VC fund founded by former partners at Sequoia Capital India, has closed their maiden fund at $351 million.
A91 Partners will focus on high growth startups in consumer, technology, financial services, and healthcare sectors in India, Abhay Pandey, a partner at A91 told TechCrunch in an interview.
A91, whose maiden fund is one of the largest for any VC funds in India, will focus on early as well mid-stage startups that are looking to raise between $10 million and $30 million, Pandey said. Earlier this year, it invested about $14.2 million in Sugar, a cosmetics brand.
“In our experience, some companies get to this stage after having raised capital and some bootstrap their way into that position,” he added. Other than him, V.T. Bharadwaj, Gautam Mago, Prasun Agarwal — all former partners at Sequoia Capital India, and Kaushik Anand, formerly of CapitalG are also partners at A91. They founded the fund late last year.
The inspiration of the name comes from the country code of India, which is 91. The letter A is inspired from Ashoka, India’s greatest emperor.
“We are excited about the opportunity ahead of us and look forward to partnering with founders building enduring businesses for tomorrow’s India,” the founding members said in a statement.
“Our role in this development and growth is to partner with exceptional founders to build the next generation of enduring Indian businesses. While fulfilling this role, we aspire to build an enduring, excellent, uniquely Indian investment firm,” they said.
A91 raised about 80% of the $351 million capital from overseas investors that include foundations, endowments, family offices and fund of funds, Pandey said. Some of these include the International Finance Corporation and Asia Alternatives, as well as Adams Street and Swiss-based LGT Capital Partners.
India’s tech startups have raised more than $20 billion in the last two years. The country’s growing startup ecosystem is increasingly attracting major VC firms in the nation. SoftBank and Tiger Global, two large global VC funds, count India as one of their biggest markets.
In recent years, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook have also begun to infuse money in India’s startup space. Google has invested in delivery startup Dunzo, while Amazon has taken stake in more than half a dozen local companies. Facebook invested in social commerce app Meesho last month.
Earlier this year, Microsoft expanded its M12 corporate venture fund (formerly known as Microsoft Ventures) to India with an investment in Innovaccer, a six-year-old SaaS startup. Samsung Venture, the investment arm of the South Korean technology conglomerate, made its debut investments in Indian startups on Wednesday.
Waresix, one of a handful of startups aiming to modernize logistics in Indonesia — the world’s fourth most populous country — has pulled in $14.5 million to grow its 18-month-old business.
This new investment, Waresix’s Series A, is led by EV Growth — the growth-stage fund co-run by East Ventures — with participation from SMDV — the investment arm of Indonesia corporation Sinar Mas — and Singapore’s Jungle Ventures . The startup previously raised $1.6 million last year from East Ventures, SMDV and Monk’s Hill Ventures. It closed a seed round in early 2018.
Waresix is aiming to digitize logistics, the business of moving goods from A to B, which it believes is worth a total of $240 billion in Indonesia.
A large part of that is down to the country’s geography. The archipelago officially has more than 17,000 islands, but there are five main ones. That necessitates a lot of challenges for logistics, which are said to account for 25-30% of GDP — a figure that is typically below 5% in Western markets — while Indonesia barely scraped the top 50 rankings in World Bank’s Logistics Performance Index.
But, as Southeast Asia’s largest economy and the key market for digital growth in the region, that makes this an attractive problem to solve… or, rather, attractive industry to modernize.
Like others in its space worldwide — which include Chinese unicorn Manbang and BlackBuck in India — Waresix is focused on optimizing logistics by making the process more transparent for clients and more efficient for haulage companies and truckers. That includes removing the chain of “middle man” brokers, who add costs and reduce transparency, and provide a one-stop solution for transportation by land or sea, as well as cold storage and general cargo handling.
As of today, Waresix claims a fleet of more than 20,000 trucks and over 200 warehouse partners across Indonesia. The company said it plans to use this new capital to expand that coverage further. In particular, that’ll include additional land transport options and additional warehouse capacity in tier-two cities and more remote areas. That’s a push that founders Andree Susanto (CEO) and Edwin Wibowo (CFO) — who met at UC Berkeley in the U.S. — believe fits with Indonesia’s own $400 billion commitment to improve national infrastructure and transport.
It is also consistent with East Ventures, the long-standing early-stage VC, which has backed a pack of young companies aiming to inject internet smarts into traditional industries in Indonesia. Some of that portfolio includes Warung Pintar, which develops smart street vendor kiosks, Kedai Sayur, which is digitizing street vendors, and Fore Coffee, which draws inspiration from China’s digital-first brand Luckin Coffee, which recently listed in the U.S.
Now with EV Growth, which reached a final close of $200 million thanks to LPs that include SoftBank, East Ventures has the firepower to write larger checks that go beyond seed and pre-Series A deals, as it has done with Waresix.
But the company is far from alone in going after the logistics opportunity in Indonesia. Its rivals include Kargo, which was started by a former Uber Asia exec and is backed by Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick’s 10100 fund among others, and Ritase.
Ritase, which claims to be profitable, closed an $8.5 million Series A this week. It said it has 7,500 trucks and, on the client side, some 500 SMEs and a smattering of well-known global brands. Kargo has kept its metrics quiet, but it is a later arrival on the scene. The startup only came out of stealth in March of this year when it announced a $7.6 million funding round.
Southeast Asia’s highest-capitalized startup is sitting on even more money from investors today after ride-hailing Grab announced it has raised $300 million from Invesco.
The deal takes Singapore-based Grab $7.5 billion raised to date. The money is part of its ongoing — feels-like-everlasting — Series H round which was started last June via a $1 billion capital injection from Toyota.
The round swelled to $4.5 billion thanks to contributions from a range of partners throughout 2018 and early 2019, then Grab said in April that it would add a further $2 billion to reach a $6.5 billion close before this year is out. This investment from Invesco is the first piece of that newest tranche to be announced, but there’s plenty happening under the surface, including a potential investment from PayPal, Ant Financial and others in a spinout of Grab’s financial services.
Grab declined to comment on the status of its Series H, and how much it has raised for the round so far.
Getting back to today’s news and, despite a relatively dry-looking announcement, there is an interesting takeaway to be found here.
Yes, this isn’t a SoftBank Vision Fund sized round — that $1.5 billion deal closed earlier this year — and it lacks the strategic significance of investments from backers like Toyota, Booking.com or Microsoft, but it does represent a doubling down on Grab from Invesco.
The firm merged with emerging market-focused fund Oppenheimer back in May. Oppenheimer — which has close to $40 billion in assets under management for its developing market fund alone — was among the participants in an initial $2 billion raise for that Series H, and now the merged entity is coming back to increase its position.
That first deal (from Oppenheimer) was $403 million, Grab said, so this new addition takes its spend on Grab to over $700 million. It also comes at an interesting time for the firm, which is reported to have reorganized its management team following the completion of the merger.
Based on that clearing of the decks/realignment, the decision to double down on Grab is a positive validation for the ride-hailing company. While it might not be a household name to those outside financial markets, Grab president Ming Maa played up Invesco as “one of the smartest investors in developing markets” in a statement released alongside news of the investment.
Grab acquired Uber’s regional business last year to become Southeast Asia’s undisputed ride-hailing leader, but it perhaps didn’t reckon on its local rival Go-Jek mounting a bid to finally expand its service regionally.
Having built a strong presence in Indonesia — where it pioneered ‘super app’ concepts like services on-demand and payments in the context of ride-hailing — Go-Jek has since expanded into Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore, with the Philippines also in its sights. Those moves were fuelled by investment from the likes of Tencent, Google and Warburg Pincus . As it seeks to go further and deeper in those markets, Go-Jek is currently raising a round for growth that is expected to reach $2 billion, half of which it said it had secured in January.
That accumulation of cash seemed to spark a call to arms for Grab, which turned its Series H into a gargantuan rolling round after increasing the overall round target first to $5 billion and then to $6.5 billion.
Uber may have decided to leave Southeast Asia, but the ride-hailing industry in the region is still as fascinating as ever.
Brandless, a direct-to-consumer purveyor of food, beauty, and personal care products, says that every item it makes is non-genetically modified, kosher, fair-trade, gluten-free, often organic and, in the case of cleaning supplies, EPA “Safer Choice” certified. From its founding in 2012, items were also priced at $3 across the board.
That changed in January, when the company added baby and pet products to its stable of offerings, some of them at a $9 price point. But according to a new report in The Information, that’s far from the only change afoot at the company. Instead, the outlet paints a picture of a company that sold 40 percent of its business to SoftBank for a stunning $240 million before it had found its footing, and where things have been sliding downhill since.
Indeed, while cofounder and longtime CEO Tina Sharkey suggested to Bloomberg at the time that SoftBank loved Brandless’s uniform price points, its messaging to customers, and that Brandless was focused on a “highly curated collection” in contrast to Amazon’s everything-store ethos, the company has steadily been losing customers since, — a lot of them, according to The Information. Specifically, it says that an analysis provided to it by Second Measure, a company that analyzes anonymized debit and credit card purchases, found that Brandless had 26.5% fewer customers last month than it did in May 2018.
We’ve reached out to both Brandless and SoftBank for more information. (Brandless’s earlier backers include Redpoint Ventures, New Enterprises Associates, GV, and Cowboy Ventures. It has raised $292 million altogether, shows Crunchbase.)
We’ve yet to hear back from Brandless (SoftBank declined to comment), but The Information says it has talked with numerous former employees who cite quality control issues as one of the company’s biggest challenges over time — from silicone serving spoons that detach from their handles, to glass containers that have arrived broken on customer’s doorsteps and, in some cases, sliced their fingers.
They also recount inventory challenges, including buying too much perishable inventory and not buying enough of popular items. And they note that some of the inventory for sale on Brandless in its early days came from Beach House, a company that was founded by Ido Leffler, an Israeli entrepreneur who’d cofounded Brandless with Sharkey.
A bigger revelation by The Information is simply that Sharkey stepped down as CEO in March, which Sharkey had quietly revealed in a Medium post titled “More Goodness.” A source familiar with the situation says Sharkey made the decision, approaching the board about replacing herself and moving exclusively into a co-chairman role. The Information cites its own source, who seems to echo that Sharkey was not pushed out, but said her decision stemmed from tensions with SoftBank, which was pushing for Brandless to turn a profit.
Indeed, its new report reveals that Brandless recently appointed a new CEO to replace Sharkey: serial founder John Rittenhouse, whose LinkedIn profile says he began the job last month. Rittenhouse spent several years as a C-suite executive at Wal-Mart nearly 20 years ago. He has since cofounded two beverage industry companies, VinAsset and the business-to-business software firm Fortera.co. A source tells us he was introduced to the company through New Enterprise Associates.
The Information report offers far more detail while leaving open the question of whether Brandless is going through the growing pains of a young company or its problems run deeper. Either way, the bet is looking like a troubled one for SoftBank at a time when it has other problems with which to contend.
SoftBank and Andreesen Horowitz (a16z) recently announced new funds that reinforce the increasing scale of the venture industry. SoftBank announced its intent to raise a second Vision Fund through a public offering, a first for any venture firm. A16z announced two new funds, an early-stage $750 million fund and a growth-stage $2 billion fund.
A16z is the latest firm to launch a family of funds, four in the past 18 months totaling $3.5 billion, including the earlier announced Bio and Crypto funds. A16z joins GGV, Lightspeed and Sequoia as firms that have raised families of funds that cover specific sectors, stages or countries. In the last 18 months, Sequoia has raised nine funds, with nearly $9 billion committed; Lightspeed four funds for nearly $3 billion; and GGV four funds with $1.8 billion.
These funds and others like them will change the nature of venture capital. Venture is no longer a cottage industry where partners sit around a conference table on Mondays meeting companies and discussing which to support. Venture no longer operates as a collection of individual practitioners like a dental clinic. Venture firms are moving from job shops to scaled organizations with an armada of specialists in human resources, marketing, finance, engineering, legal and investor relations to support their investment and fundraising activity. Once firms with just a few partners, SoftBank, Sequoia and GGV now have teams of hundreds of people working to support continual fund raising, origination and portfolio development in the United States and abroad.
Funding startups is an inherently local business.
Investment banking and private equity firms provide a road map for how the venture capital may develop. The leading investment banks and private equity firms were closely held partnerships for many decades, before increasing capital intensity required a change of corporate structure. Founded in 1914, Merrill Lynch, a securities brokerage firm, was considered an interloper in the cloistered investment banking world. But as more capital entered public securities markets, securities trading houses such as Merrill Lynch encroached on Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Lehman and Kuhn Loeb, which then dominated highly profitable investment banking.
A wave of consolidation followed as partnerships gave way to full-service investment banks armed with capital to backstop their lucrative mergers and acquisition and financing practices. Founded in 1854, Lehman acquired Kuhn Loeb in 1977, which was then acquired by American Express in 1984, combining Lehman’s banking practice with Shearson’s brokerage business. The last bulge bracket investment banking partnerships Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs went public in 1993 and 1999, respectively.
Private equity firms soon followed. Like investment banks, partnerships prevailed in private equity. But as their appetite for capital grew to finance ever-larger acquisitions, private equity tapped the public markets for larger, more stable capital. Today, the five largest private equity firms are all public. Apollo Global Management, a PE firm now with $250 billion under management, went public in 2004. Blackstone, the largest PE firm, with $470 billion under management, followed with an IPO in 2007. Carlyle, KKR and Ares soon followed with public offerings.
Venture capital has been insulated from the capital intensity that fueled consolidation of the investment banking and private equity industries. Funding startups is an inherently local business. Technology innovation has historically been capital-efficient as early technology leaders such as Microsoft and Oracle went public after raising less than $20 million in private funding. And venture is a risky, volatile business, where profits vary substantially, failure rate is high and returns are highly cyclical.
Innovation is costlier as entrepreneurs and investors seek to disrupt rather than enable industries.
But like the investment banking and private equity industries, venture capital is becoming more capital-intensive. Innovation is costlier as entrepreneurs and investors seek to disrupt rather than enable industries. Startups require more capital to achieve escape velocity with the ever-present, growing threat from technology incumbents. Startups are moving into new industries competing with larger incumbents. And “lean startups” that rely more on company-building services offered by their investors are not “lean” for venture firms that must build out service capacity in talent acquisition, sales, product marketing and finance to accelerate venture growth. Today, staff devoted to supporting startup development often exceeds investment professionals in large venture firms.
The venture industry is highly fragmented, with more than 200 venture firms in Silicon Valley alone. Hundreds of venture firms are starting in cities and countries that were previously considered deserts for technology innovation. The venture industry is likely to consolidate significantly in the next decade as funding confers greater advantage to large venture investors.
A few boutique investment banks and private equity firms have withstood the scale and capital advantages of bulge bracket firms. Similarly, seed and early-stage venture firms will resist SoftBank-style institutionalization. Venture firms with expertise in specific technologies, industry sectors or geographic markets will still produce superior returns. However, capital intensity is rising. The venture industry will ultimately be dominated by a few global venture firms supported by independent seed and early-stage funds with proprietary access to high-potential startups.
Investments by U.S. venture capital firms into Latin America are skyrocketing and one of the firms leading the charge into deals is none other than Silicon Valley’s Andreessen Horowitz .
The firm that shook up Silicon Valley with potentially over-generous term sheets and valuations and an overarching thesis that “software is eating the world” has been reluctant to test its core belief… well… pretty much anywhere outside of the United States.
That was true until a few years ago when Andreessen began making investments in Latin America. It’s the only geography outside of the U.S. where the firm has committed significant capital and the pace of its investments is increasing.
Andreessen isn’t the only firm that’s making big bets in companies south of the American border. SoftBank has its $2 billion dollar investment fund, which launched earlier this year, to invest in Latin American deals as well. (Although the most recent SoftBank Innovation Fund investment in GymPass is likely an indicator that the fund, much like SoftBank’s “Vision” fund, has a pretty generous interpretation of what is and is not a Latin American deal.)
“We previously didn’t invest internationally, [because] we weren’t as well set up to help these companies,” says Angela Strange, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz. “Part of the reason for why LatAm is proximity.”
Private equity firms get a bad rap — and not without reason. In the prototypical example, a bunch of men in suits (and these folks always seem to be men for some reason) swoop in from Manhattan with Excel spreadsheets and pink slips, slashing and burning through an organization while ladening the balance sheet with debt in an algebraic alchemy of monetary extraction.
Vultures, parasites, octopuses — these are folks who almost certainly won popularity contests in high school and now seem to be shooting for most unpopular person to be compared to a crustacean in the Finance section of the WSJ (and there is some damn strong competition in those pages).
Sometimes that restructuring can save an org, and yes, many companies need a Marie Kondo armed with a business plan. But it’s a model that works best for, say, retail chains, and traditionally has been wholly incompatible with the tech industry.
Tech is a tough place for private equity buyouts, since the biggest expense for most companies is talent (i.e. R&D), and cutting R&D is usually the quickest path to cutting the valuation of the asset you just acquired. Unlike retail or manufacturing, there are just less cost levers to manipulate to make the numbers look better, and so PE firms have generally shied away from big tech acquisitions.
So it was interesting talking to Simon Segars this week in New York. Segars is the CEO and longtime executive at ARM Holdings, the UK-headquartered chip designer that powers billions of devices worldwide. Over the past two decades, ARM has had just an incredible run: last year, its designs were imprinted on 22.9 billion chips, thanks largely to the now ubiquitous adoption of smartphones across the world.
That success has been under stress though. As Brian Heater analyzed in his State of the Smartphone, smartphone growth has slowed in most markets as consumers extend their upgrade cycles and the pace of innovation has slowed. Add in the on-going trade kerfuffle between the U.S. and China, and suddenly being the worldwide leading designer of smartphone chips isn’t as enviable as it was even just a few years ago.
As a public company facing this landscape, ARM would have faced incredible pressure from investors to meet short-term revenue targets while cutting back on R&D — the very source of future growth the company has relied on its entire history. But ARM isn’t a public company — instead, SoftBank founder and CEO Masayoshi Son bought out the company entirely in 2016 for $32 billion.
Rather than being pegged to its stock price or a quick return to a PE shop, ARM is now seemingly evaluated on growth in its intellectual property and strategy for capturing new markets. “I’m in a very fortunate position where, despite the slowing of the smartphone market, … I’ve got an owner that says, invest, you know, invest like crazy to make sure you capture these ways of growth in the future, which is what we’re doing,” Segars explained to TechCrunch.
The company could have just doubled down on its existing product lines, but SoftBank’s ownership has opened the floodgates to explore other areas that could use ARM expertise. The company is now focused (if one can focus on many things) on everything from 5G and networking to IoT and autonomous driving. “We look to be in the right place at the right time with the right technology to catch the upswing into the future,“ Segars said.
That strategy requires some serious audacity though. ARM’s EBITDA was $225 million last year (21% lower than the year before) on $1.8 billion in net sales, which year-over-year grew a paltry 0.2% according to SoftBank’s latest financials. Meanwhile, operating expenses are up from the addition of hundreds of new employees and a new headquarters campus in Cambridge outside London. R&D isn’t cheap, nor does it payoff quickly.
Yet, that is exactly how Son and SoftBank approach this take-private transaction. “During the acquisition process, Masa said to me, ‘You run the business, I only care about long-term strategy, not going to interfere, you know, you know what you’re doing.’ … [and] Masa has been absolutely true to his word on that,” Segars said. “From a day-to-day basis, SoftBank leaves us completely alone.”
And unlike the bean counters that plague most PE shops, Son isn’t interested in detailed operational data from the firm. “When I give tactical updates… he’s asleep, [but] try stopping him when he’s talking about long-term strategy,” Segars said.
And unlike the PE model of dumping a bunch of high-interest corporate debt on the balance sheet to eke out returns, SoftBank has — at least, so far — avoided that particular tactic. While there were ruminations that SoftBank was considering cashing out some dollars from ARM using loans early last year, such rumors have apparently not panned out. Segars confirmed that “we have none” when we asked about leverage, which has otherwise plagued much of the rest of SoftBank Group and its various entities.
While ARM clearly has a bullish owner who somehow uses financial wizardry to give the company the resources it needs to grow, Son doesn’t have an infinite timeline for the company. Much like classic PE firms with 5-7 year time horizons to harvest returns, Son has already spoken out loud about pushing ARM back into the public markets in roughly five years time.
“I’m pretty sure, the night before we go public again, I’m going to be thinking ‘Man, I wish we’d had more time, you know, five years sounds like a lot,” Segars said. But “the way I talk about it within ARM is we’re in an investment phase now … and the goal is that by the time we re-list, … the revenues from these new markets are taking off and that’s flowing to the bottom line and we get back to a world of growing top line and expanding margins.”
In other words, ARM is a classic PE deal, but with the focus on actually getting the fundamentals in the business right without that financial alchemy and employee firing sadness. Maybe the plan will work, or maybe it won’t, but it is the right approach to handling the growth of a tech company.
How many other tech companies could use such an approach? How many other companies are currently languishing if only they had more focused owners with a true growth mindset to invest in the future? Silicon Valley has created trillions of dollars in market value over the past two decades, but there is even more waiting to be unlocked. And the best part is, it doesn’t even require an Excel macro to make it happen.