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Yesterday — June 1st 2020Your RSS feeds

China Roundup: SoftBank leads Didi’s $500M round and Meituan crosses $100B valuation

By Rita Liao

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. Last week, we had a barrage of news ranging from SoftBank’s latest bet on China’s autonomous driving sector to Chinese apps making waves in the U.S. (not TikTok).

China tech abroad

The other Chinese apps trending in America

TikTok isn’t the only app with a Chinese background that’s making waves in the U.S. A brand new short-video app called Zynn has been topping the iOS chart in America since May 26, just weeks after its debut. Zynn’s maker is no stranger to Chinese users: it was developed by short-video platform Kuaishou, the nemesis of Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese sister.

The killer feature behind Zynn’s rise is an incentive system that pays people small amounts of cash to sign up, watch videos or invite others to join, a common user acquisition tactic in the Chinese internet industry.

Paying people to use & recommend your app to others i.e. the classic Qutoutiao (趣头条 Fun Headlines) model popularized in China from around 2017 has now made it over to the States

Given how many unemployed people there are due to Covid-19. Never been a better time to test this https://t.co/nXXoCrlTvW

— Matthew Brennan (@mbrennanchina) May 27, 2020

The other app that’s been trending in the U.S. for a while is News Break, a hyper-local news app founded by China’s media veteran Jeff Zheng, with teams in China and the U.S. It announced a heavy-hitting move last week as it onboards Harry Shum, former boss of Microsoft AI and Research Group, as its board chairman.

Alibaba looks for overseas influencers

The Chinese e-commerce giant is searching for live-streaming hosts in Europe and other overseas countries to market its products on AliExpress, its marketplace for consumers outside China. Live-streaming dancing and singing is nothing new, but the model of selling through live videos, during which consumers can interact with a salesperson or session host, has gained major ground in China as shops remained shut for weeks during the coronavirus outbreak.

In Q1 2020, China recorded more than 4 million e-commerce live-streaming sessions across various platforms, including Alibaba. Now the Chinese giant wants to replicate its success abroad, pledging that the new business model can create up to 100,000 new jobs for content creators around the world.

Oppo in Germany

Oppo announced last week its new European headquarters in Düsseldorf, Germany, a sign that the Chinese smartphone maker has gotten more serious on the continent. The move came weeks after it signed a distribution deal with Vodafone to sell its phones in seven European countries. Oppo was also one of the first manufacturers to launch a 5G commercial phone in Europe.

Chinese tech stocks return

We speculated last week that Hong Kong might become an increasingly appealing destination for U.S.-listed Chinese tech companies, many of which will be feeling the heat of tightening accounting rules targeting foreign companies. Two firms have already taken action. JD.com and NetEase, two of China’s biggest internet firms, have won approvals to list in Hong Kong, Bloomberg reported, citing sources.

China tech back home

SoftBank doubles down on Didi

Massive losses in SoftBank’s first Vision Fund didn’t seem to deter the Japanese startup benefactor from placing bold bets. China’s ride-hailing giant Didi has completed an outsized investment of over $500 million in its new autonomous driving subsidiary. The financing led by SoftBank marked the single-largest fundraising round in China’s autonomous driving sector.

The capital will give Didi a huge boost in the race to win the autonomous driving race, where it is a relative latecomer. It’s competing with deep-pocketed players that are aggressively testing across the world, including the likes of Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu, and startups such as Momenta, NIO and Pony.ai.

Marriage of e-commerce and live streaming

Speaking of live-streaming e-commerce, two of China’s biggest internet companies have teamed up to exploit the new business model. JD, the online retailer that is Alibaba’s long-time archrival, has signed a strategic partnership with Kuaishou — yes, the maker of Zynn and TikTok’s rival in China.

The collaboration is part of a rising trend in the Chinese internet, where short video apps and e-commerce platforms pally up to explore new monetization avenues. The thinking goes that video platforms can leverage the trust that influencers instill in their audience to tout products.

Meituan hit record valuation

Despite reporting an unprofitable first quarter, Meituan, a leader in China’s food delivery sector, saw its shares reach a record high last week to bring its valuation to over $100 billion.

Notion got banned in China, briefly

Notion, the fast-growing work collaboration tool that recently hit a $2 billion valuation and has attracted a loyal following in China, was briefly banned in China last week. It’s still investigating the cause of the ban, but the timing noticeably coincided with China’s annual parliament meeting, which began last week after a two-month delay due to COVID-19. Internet regulation and censorship normally toughen around key political meetings in the country.

India’s richest man built a telecom operator everyone wants a piece of

By Manish Singh

As investors’ appetites sour in the midst of a pandemic, a three-and-a-half-year-old Indian firm has secured $10.3 billion in a month from Facebook and four U.S.-headquartered private equity firms.

The major deals for Reliance Jo Platforms have sparked a sudden interest among analysts, executives and readers at a time when many are skeptical of similar big check sizes that some investors wrote to several young startups, many of which are today struggling to make sense of their finances.

Prominent investors across the globe, including in India, have in recent weeks cautioned startups that they should be prepared for the “worst time” as new checks become elusive.

Elsewhere in India, the world’s second-largest internet market and where all startups together raised a record $14.5 billion last year, firms are witnessing down rounds (where their valuations are slashed). Miten Sampat, an angel investor, said this week that startups should expect a 40%-50% haircut in their valuations if they do get an investment offer.

Facebook’s $5.7 billion investment valued the company at $57 billion. But U.S. private equity firms Silver Lake, Vista, General Atlantic, and KKR — all the other deals announced in the past five weeks — are paying a 12.5% premium for their stake in Jio Platforms, valuing it at $65 billion.

How did an Indian firm become so valuable? What exactly does it do? Is it just as unprofitable as Uber? What does its future look like? Why is it raising so much money? And why is it making so many announcements instead of one.

It’s a long story.

Run up to the launch of Jio

Billionaire Mukesh Ambani gave a rundown of his gigantic Indian empire at a gathering in December 2015 packed with 35,000 people including hundreds of Bollywood celebrities and industry titans.

“Reliance Industries has the second-largest polyester business in the world. We produce one and a half million tons of polyester for fabrics a year, which is enough to give every Indian 5 meters of fabric every year, year-on-year,” said Ambani, who is Asia’s richest man.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Bunq adds donations to charities and tests redesign

By Romain Dillet

Challenger bank Bunq is adding a new feature that lets you donate to charities directly from the app. In addition to that, Bunq is also in the process of redesigning its app. The company is launching a public beta test to get feedback from its users.

Other fintech startups, such as Revolut and Lydia, have launched donation features in the past. But in those cases, startups have selected a handful of charities.

Bunq has chosen a different approach, as you can create your own donation campaigns in the app. As long your local charity has an IBAN number, you can add it to Bunq’s donation feature. You can even add a local business in case you want to help them stay in business.

You can then invite other people to donate to your charities. You can also track the total amount of your donations, as well as the total donations from the entire Bunq user base.

The company has also been working on the third major version of the app. In order to test it before the public release, Bunq is launching a public beta program. The first build will roll out in the coming weeks.

In order to simplify navigation, Bunq has tried to remove clutter by focusing on one main button on each page. The app will be divided in four main tabs.

The first tab, called “Me,” will feature all your personal information — personal bank accounts, savings goals, etc. On the second tab, called “Us,” you can see information about Bunq, such as total investments and total donations. The third tab features your profile information.

Finally, the fourth tab is a dedicated camera button. It lets you scan invoices and receipts, which could be particularly useful for business customers. I’m not sure a lot of people use that feature, but things could still change before the final release.

SoftBank led $500M investment in Didi in China’s biggest autonomous driving round

By Rita Liao

The race to automate vehicles on China’s roads is heating up. Didi, the Uber of China, announced this week an outsized investment of over $500 million in its freshly minted autonomous driving subsidiary. Leading the round — the single largest fundraising round in China’s autonomous driving sector — is its existing investor Softbank, the Japanese telecom giant and startup benefactor that has also backed Uber.

The proceeds came through Softbank’s second Vision Fund, which was reportedly lagging in fundraising as its Fund I recorded massive losses in part due to the collapsing valuation of WeWork.

As China’s largest ride-hailing provider with mountains of traffic data, Didi clearly has an upper hand in developing robotaxis, which could help address driver shortage in the long term. But it was relatively late to the field. In 2018, Didi ranked eighth in kilometers of autonomous driving tests carried out in Beijing, far behind search giant Baidu which accounted for over 90% of the total mileage that year.

It’s since played aggressive catchup. Last August, it spun off its then three-year-old autonomous driving unit into an independent company to focus on R&D, building partnerships along the value chain, and promoting the futuristic technology to the government. The team now has a staff of 200 across its China and U.S. offices.

As an industry observer told me, “robotaxis will become a reality only when you have the necessary operational skills, technology and government support all in place.”

Didi is most famous for its operational efficiency, as facilitating safe and pleasant rides between drivers and passengers is no small feat. The company’s leadership hails from Alibaba’s legendary business-to-business sales team, also known as the “Alibaba Iron Army” for its ability in on-the-ground operation.

On the tech front, the subsidiary is headed by chief executive Zhang Bo, a Baidu veteran, and chief technology officer Wei Junqing, who joined last year from self-driving software company Aptiv.

The autonomous segment can also benefit from Didi’s all-encompassing reach in the mobility industry. For instance, it’s working to leverage the parent company’s smart charging networks, fleet maintenance service and insurance programs for autonomous fleets.

The fresh capital will enable Didi’s autonomous business to improve safety — an area that became a focal point of the company after two deadly accidents — and efficiency through conducting R&D and road tests. The financing will also allow it to deepen industry cooperation and accelerate the deployment of robotaxi services in China and abroad.

Over the years, Didi has turned to traditional carmakers for synergies in what it dubs the “D-Alliance,” which counts more than 31 partners. It has applied autonomous driving technology to vehicles from Lincoln, Nissan, Volvo, BYD, to name a few.

Didi has secured open-road testing licenses in three major cities in China as well as California. It said last August that it aimed to begin picking up ride-hailing passengers with autonomous cars in Shanghai in a few months’ time. It’s accumulated 300,000 kilometers of road tests in China and the U.S. as of last August.

Belvo scores $10M from Founders Fund and Kaszek to scale its API for financial services

By Anna Escher

Belvo, a Latin American fintech startup which launched just 12 months ago, has already snagged funding from two of the biggest names in North and South American venture capital.

The company is aiming to expand the reach of its service that connects mobile applications in Mexico and Colombia to a customer’s banking information and now has some deep-pocketed investors to support its efforts. 

If the business model sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Belvo is borrowing a page from the Plaid playbook. It’s a strategy that ultimately netted the U.S. startup and its investors $5.3 billion when it was acquired by Visa in January of this year.

Belvo and its backers, who funneled $10 million into the year-old company, want to replicate Plaid’s success and open up an entire new range of financial services companies in Latin America.  

The round was co-led by Silicon Valley’s Founders Fund and Argentina’s Kaszek. With the new arsenal of capital complimented by the Founders Fund’s network and Kaszek’s deep knowledge of the Latin American market, Belvo hopes to triple its current team of 25 that is spread across operations in Mexico City and Barcelona. 

Since its initial establishment in May 2019, the company has raised a total of $13 million from Y Combinator (W20) along with some of the biggest players in Latin America’s startup scene. Those investors include David Velez, the co-founder of Brazil’s multi-billion dollar lending startup, Nubank; MAYA Capital and Venture Friends. 

The company’s co-founders, Pablo Viguera and Oriol Tintoré are no stranger to startups themselves. Viguera served as COO at European payments app Verse, and is a former general manager of one of the big European neo-banks, Revolut. Tintoré is a former NASA aerospace engineer, and while working for his Stanford MBA, founded Capella Space, an information collection startup that went on to raise over $50 million. 

The company said it aims to work with leading fintechs in Latin America, spanning across verticals like the neobanks, credit providers and personal finance products Latin Americans use every day.

Belvo has built a developer-first API platform that can be used to access and interpret end-user financial data to build better, more efficient and more inclusive financial products in Latin America. Developers of popular neobank apps, credit providers and personal finance tools use Belvo’s API to connect bank accounts to their apps to unlock the power of open banking.

Viguera says the capital will be used to open a new office in Sao Paulo, and invest in new product and business development hires. Notably, Belvo is only one year old, having launched in January 2020 and operative in Mexico and Colombia. 

Co-founders Pablo Viguera and Oriol Tintoré are a former Revolut GM and former NASA aerospace engineer.

 

Belvo’s latest funding also marks another instance of a U.S.-Latin America investment teamup for a Latin American company.

Nuvocargo, a logistics startup that wants to bolster the Mexico – U.S. trade lane with its freight transportation technology, also recently raised a round co-led by Mexico’s ALLVP and Silicon Valley-based NFX. American investors may be starting to take note of the co-investment opportunity of putting capital into startups serving the Latin American market in partnership with successful new wave domestic funds like Mexico’s ALLVP and Argentina’s Kaszek.  

Existing backers put another £40M into UK challenger bank Starling

By Steve O'Hear

Starling Bank, the U.K.-based challenger bank founded by banking veteran Anne Boden, has raised an additional £40 million in funding, TechCrunch has learned.

The round is led by existing backers Harry McPike’s JTC and Merian Chrysalis Investment Company Limited, and adds to the £60 million raised in February this year.

Now boasting 1.4 million accounts, including 155,000 business accounts, Starling Bank has raised a total of £363 million since its launch in 2014. Noteworthy, I’m told that its deposit base has doubled in the last six months and it now holds more than £2.4 billion in deposits.

“This additional funding from our existing investors demonstrates their commitment both to Starling and to our small business and personal customers who need our support now more than ever,” said Starling’s Anne Boden in a statement confirming the fundraise.

I understand the new funding will enable the bank to continue investing in growth, and, more specifically, to provide “much-needed support to small business customers who have been hit by the coronavirus emergency.”

This has seen it collaborate with the U.K. government to increase lending to SMEs as part of the country’s various coronavirus crisis business support packages, including £300 million under the government-backed Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) and direct to its customers under its own CBIL and Bounce Back Loan Schemes.

To that end, since launching SME accounts in March 2018 and securing £100 million in state aid via the Capability and Innovation Fund (CIF), business banking has become a big bet for Starling. It appears to be starting to pay off, too, with the bank now claiming to hold a 2.6% share of the U.K.’s SME banking market, with almost £500 million of SME lending currently on its balance sheet.

Nuro’s self-driving vehicles to deliver prescriptions for CVS Pharmacy

By Kirsten Korosec

Nuro, the autonomous robotics startup that has raised more than $1 billion from Softbank Vision Fund, Greylock and other investors, said Thursday it will test prescription delivery in Houston through a partnership with CVS Pharmacy. The pilot, which will use a fleet of the startup’s autonomous Toyota Prius vehicles and transition to using its custom-built R2 delivery bots, is slated to begin in June.

The partnership marks Nuro’s expansion beyond groceries and into healthcare. Last month, the startup dipped its autonomous toe in the healthcare field through a program to delivery food and medical supplies at temporary field hospitals in California set up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pilot program centers on one CVS Pharmacy in Bellaire, Texas and will serve customers across three zip codes. Customers who place prescription orders via CVS’ website or pharmacy app will be given the option to choose an autonomous delivery option. These pharmacy customers will also be able add other non-prescription items to their order.

Once the autonomous vehicle arrives, customers will need to confirm their identification to unlock their delivery. Deliveries will be free of charge for CVS Pharmacy customers.

“We are seeing an increased demand for prescription delivery,” Ryan Rumbarger, senior vice
president of store operations at CVS Health, said in a prepared statement. “We want to give our customers more choice in how they can quickly access the medications they need when it’s not convenient for them to visit one of our pharmacy locations.”

Nuro is already operating in the Houston area. Walmart announced in December a pilot program to test autonomous grocery delivery in the Houston market using Nuro’s autonomous vehicles. Under the pilot, Nuro’s vehicles deliver Walmart online grocery orders to a select group of customers who opt into the service in Houston. The autonomous delivery service involves R2, Nuro’s custom-built delivery vehicle that carries products only, with no on-board drivers or passengers, as well as autonomous Toyota Priuses that deliver groceries.

Nuro also partnered with Kroger (Fry’s) in 2018 to test autonomous Prius vehicles and its first-generation custom-built robot known as R1. The R1 autonomous vehicle was operating as a driverless service without a safety driver on board in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale. In March 2019, Nuro moved the service with Kroger to Houston, beginning with autonomous Priuses.

nuro sleep train autonomous

Image Credits: Nuro

The company’s contactless delivery program shuttling medical supplies and food is also continuing. Under that program, which began in late April, Nuro’s R2 bots are used at two events centers — in San Mateo and the Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento — that have been turned into temporary healthcare facilities for COVID-19 patients. Nuro is delivering meals and equipment to more than 50 medical staff at both sites every week.

It’s unclear how long the field hospital program will continue. Last week, there were 25 patients across the two sites. The Sleep Train Arena is accepting patients through June 30 via California Office of Emergency Services. The hospital may be converted to a shelter for those affected by fires through the end of this year.

Carry1st has $4M to invest in African mobile gaming

By Jake Bright

Gaming development startup Carry1st has raised a $2.5 million seed round led by CRE Venture Capital .

That brings the company’s total VC to $4 million, which Carry1st will deploy to support and invest in game publishing across Africa.

The startup — with offices in New York, Lagos, and South Africa — was co-founded in 2018 by Sierra Leonean Cordel Robbin-Coker, American Lucy Parry, and Zimbabwean software engineer Tinotenda Mundangepfupfu.

Robbin-Coker and Parry met while working in investment banking in New York, before forming Carry1st.

“I convinced her to avoid going to business school and instead come to South Africa to Cape Town,” Robbin-Coker told TechCrunch on a call.

“We launched with the idea that we wanted to bring the gaming industry…to the African continent.”

Carry1st looks to match gaming demand in Africa to the continent’s fast growing youth population, improving internet penetration and rapid smartphone adoption.

The startup has already launched two games as direct downloads from its site, Carry1st Trivia and Hyper!.

“In April, [Carry1st Trivia] did pretty well. It was the number one game in Nigeria, and Kenya for most of the year and did about one and a half million downloads.” Robbin-Coker said.

Carry1st Africa

Image Credit: Carry1st

The startup will use a portion of its latest round and overall capital to bring more unique content onto its platform. “In order to do that, you need cash…to help a developer finish a game or entice a strong game to work with you,” said Robbin-Coker.

The company will also expand its distribution channels, such as partnerships with mobile operators and the Carry1st Brand Ambassador program — a network of sales agents who promote and sell games across the continent.

The company will also invest in the gaming market and itself.

“We want to dedicate at least a million dollars to actually going out and acquiring users and scaling our user base. And then, the final piece is really around the tech platform that we’re looking to build,” said Robbin-Coker.

That entails creating multiple channels and revenue points to develop, distribute, and invest in games on the continent, he explained.

Image Credits: Carry1st

Robbin-Coker compared the Carry1st’s strategy in Africa as something similar to Sea: an Asia regional mobile entertainment distribution platform — publicly traded and partially owned by Tencent — that incubated the popular Fornite game.

“We’re looking to be the number one regional publisher of [gaming] content in the region…the publisher of record and the app store,” said Robbin-Coker.

That entails developing and distributing not only games originating from the continent, but also serving as channel for gaming content from other continents coming into Africa.

That generates a consistent revenue stream for the startup, Robbin-Coker explained, but also creates opportunities for big creative wins.

“It’s a hits driven business. A single studio will work and toil in obscurity for a decade and then they’ll make Candy Crush. And then that would be worth $6 billion, very quickly,” Carry1st’s CEO said.

He and his team will use a portion of their $4 million in VC to invest in that potential gaming success story in Africa.

The company’s co-founder Lucy Parry directs aspirants to the company’s homepage. “There’s a big blue button that says ‘Pitch Your Game’ at the bottom of our website.”

Lightweight ‘banking via messaging’ services are getting Gen Z buzz

By Mike Butcher

More evidence that Gen Z is switching to chat platforms for just about everything, including banking, emerges today in the news that Zelf, a fittech startup offering neobank-style services, is generating buzz amongst Gen-Zers in Spain and France. Its ability for users to interact solely via messaging has seen the startup hit over 260,000 card pre-orders since its launch in early April, according to the company which is specifically targeting Gen Z.

They are not alone. Other players in the ‘banking services via a messaging’ space include Kotak Mahindra Bank in India (on WhatsApp) and ICICI in WhatsApp (India). However, neither of these can do actual provisioning of the card and addition to Apple Pay and Google Pay in the messengers, which is what Zelf can do.

With Zelf, users get an account and a virtual card via their Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Viber and Telegram accounts. For offline and online purchases Zelf supports Apple Pay and Google Pay. This lightweight onboarding means card issuance takes less than 30 seconds via a Passport or national ID. Users then get a virtual Mastercard debit card available in their favorite messenger app. Operating inside the EU’s “Single Euro Payments Area” means it’s pretty easy for the startup to scale its offering to other countries.

Part of the reason Zelf is confident it can scale is that it has signed a deal with Treezor, a Banking-as-a-Service platform based in France. Treezor is a fintech, registered with the ACPR, and was acquired in 2019 by the Société Générale group.

Elliot Goykhman, founder and CEO of Zelf tells me: “With 84% of screen time taken by 5 apps, mostly messengers, we make sending and receiving money as easy as sending a message. Instant notifications, voice commands instead of buttons, simple invoicing and QR codes are some of the messenger banking features that will simplify the financial routine and bring money matters to the default apps of today – the messengers.” It will also soon work in Discord and Telegram, he says.

The business model for Zelf will come from interchange fees, premium account fees and – towards the end of this year – from loans, credit cards, and voice memo-activated invoices.

JioMart, the e-commerce venture from India’s richest man, launches in 200 cities and towns

By Manish Singh

The rationale behind the deluge of dollars flooding into billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio Platforms is beginning to become more clear as his e-commerce venture JioMart starts rolling out to more people across India.

An e-commerce venture between the nation’s top telecom operator Jio Platforms and top retail chain Jio Retail, JioMart just launched its new website and started accepting orders in dozens of metro, tier 1 and tier 2 cities including Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Pune, Bokaro, Bathinda, Ahmedabad, Gurgaon, and Dehradun. A Reliance executive said the service is live across 200 cities and towns.

Before the expansion on Saturday, the service was available in three suburbs of Mumbai. The service now includes perishables such as fruits and vegetables, and dairy items in addition to staples and other grocery products as it makes its pitch to Indian households across the country.

Ambani’s Reliance Jio Platforms, which has raised more than $10 billion in the last month by selling a roughly 17% stake, has amassed over 388 million subscribers, more than any other telecom operator in the country.

The money comes as Ambani’s various companies begin entering a market already teeming with fierce competitors like Amazon, Walmart’s Flipkart, BigBasket, MilkBasket, and Grofers.

Earlier this week the American e-commerce giant entered India’s food delivery market to challenge the duopoly of Prosus Ventures-backed Swiggy and Ant Financial-backed Zomato. Amazon is making a massive hiring push in India, and is looking to hire close to 50,000 seasonal workers to keep up with the growing demand on its platform.

Meanwhile, Ambani’s Reliance Retail, founded in 2006, remains the largest retailer in India by revenue. It serves more than 3.5 million customers each week through its nearly 10,000 physical stores in more than 6,500 cities and towns.

JioMart may have Amazon and Flipkart in its sights, but in its current form, however, the company is going to be more of a headache for Grofers and BigBasket, the top grocery delivery startups in India.

Reliance Industries, the most valued firm in India and parent entity of Jio Platforms and Reliance Retail, plans to expand JioMart to more than a thousand districts in a year and also widen its catalog to include electronics and office supplies among a variety of other categories, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. A Reliance Jio spokesperson declined to comment.

The expansion to more cities comes a month after JioMart launched its WhatsApp business account, enabling people to easily track their order and invoice on Facebook -owned service.

Facebook announced it would invest $5.7 billion in India’s Reliance Jio Platforms last month and pledged to work with the Indian firm to help small businesses across the country. JioMart’s WhatsApp account currently does not support the expanded regions.

Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man and the chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries, first unveiled his plan to launch an e-commerce platform last year. In a speech then, Ambani invoked Mahatma Gandhi’s work and said India needed to fight another fresh battle.

A handful of firms have attempted — and failed — to launch their e-commerce websites over the years in India, where more than 95% of sales still occur through brick and mortar stores. But Ambani is uniquely positioned to fight the duopoly of Amazon and Walmart’s Flipkart — thanks in part to the more than $10 billion in investment dollars the company recently raised from KKR, FacebookSilver LakeVista Equity Partners, and General Atlantic. In addition to scaling JioMart, the fresh capital should also help Ambani repay some of Reliance Industries’ $21 billion debt.

“We have to collectively launch a new movement against data colonization. For India to succeed in this data-driven revolution, we will have to migrate the control and ownership of Indian data back to India — in other words, Indian wealth back to every Indian,” Ambani said at an event attended by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi .

Clubhouse proves that time is a flat circle

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

First, a big thanks to everyone who took part in the Equity survey, we really appreciated your notes and thoughts. The crew is chewing over what you said now, and we’ll roll up the best feedback into show tweaks in the future.

Today, though, we’ve gone Danny and Natasha and Chris and Alex back again for our regular news dive. This week we had to leave the Vroom IPO filing, Danny’s group project on The Future of Work, and a handwashing startup (?) from Natasha to get to the very biggest stories:

  • Brex’s $150 million raise: Natasha covered the latest huge round from corporate charge-card behemoth Brex. The party’s over in Silicon Valley for a little while, so Brex is turning down your favorite startup’s credit limit while it stacks cash for the dowturn.
  • Spruce raises a $29 million Series B: Led by Scale Venture Partners, Spruce is taking on the world of real estate transactions with digital tooling and an API. As Danny notes, it’s a huge market and one that could find a boost from the pandemic.
  • Masterclass raises $100 million: Somewhere between education and entertainment, Masterclass has found its niche. The startup’s $180 yearly subscription product appears to be performing well, given that the company just stacked nine-figures into its checking account. What’s it worth? The company would only tell Natasha that it was more than $800 million.
  • Clubhouse does, well, you know. Clubhouse happened. So we talked about it.
  • SoftBank dropped its earnings lately, which gave Danny time to break out his pocket calculator and figure out how much money it spent daily, and Alex time to parse the comedy that its slideshow entailed. Here’s our favorites from the mix. (Source materials are here.)

And at the end, we got Danny to explain what the flying frack is going on over at Luckin. It’s somewhere between tragedy and farce, we reckon. That’s it for today, more Tuesday after the holiday!

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

KKR to invest $1.5 billion in India’s Reliance Jio Platforms

By Manish Singh

Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio Platforms has agreed to sell 2.32% stake to U.S. equity firm KKR in what is the fifth major deal the top Indian telecom operator has secured in just as many weeks.

On Friday, KKR announced it will invest $1.5 billion in the top Indian telecom operator, a subsidiary of India’s most valued firm (Reliance Industries), joining fellow American investors Facebook, Silver Lake, Vista Equity Partners, and General Atlantic that have made similar bets on Jio Platforms.

The investment from KKR, which has written checks to about 20 tech companies including ByteDance and GoJek in the past four decades, values Reliance Jio Platforms at $65 billion.

The announcement today further shows the appeal of Jio Platforms, which has raised $10.35 billion in the past month by selling about 17% of its stake, to foreign investors that are looking for a slice of the world’s second-largest internet market.

Ambani, the chairman and managing director of oil-to-telecoms giant Reliance Industries that has poured over $30 billion to build Jio Platforms, said the company was looking forward to leverage “KKR’s global platform, industry knowledge and operational expertise to further grow Jio.”

In recent years, India has emerged as one of the biggest global battlegrounds for Silicon Valley and Chinese firms that are looking to win the nation’s 1.3 billion people, most of whom remain without a smartphone and internet connection.

Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Xiaomi, and TikTok-parent firm ByteDance among several others already count India as one of their most important overseas markets. In the past decade, nearly half a billion Indians came online for the first time, thanks in large part to Reliance Jio, which has amassed over 388 million subscribers.

Reliance Jio

An advertisement featuring Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan for Reliance Jio (Image: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Launched in the second half of 2016, Reliance Jio upended India’s telecommunications industry with cut-rate data plans and free voice calls, forcing incumbents such as Airtel and Vodafone to significantly revise their prices to sustain customers and many to consolidate and exit the market.

Jio Platforms, a subsidiary of Reliance Industries, operates the telecom venture, called Jio Infocomm, that has become the top telecom operator in India.

Reliance Jio Platforms also owns a bevy of digital apps and services including music streaming service JioSaavn (which it says it will take public), on-demand live television service and payments service, as well as smartphones, and broadband business.

“Few companies have the potential to transform a country’s digital ecosystem in the way that Jio Platforms is doing in India, and potentially worldwide. Jio Platforms is a true homegrown next generation technology leader in India that is unmatched in its ability to deliver technology solutions and services to a country that is experiencing a digital revolution,” Henry Kravis, co-founder and co-chief executive of KKR, said in a statement.

“We are investing behind Jio Platforms’ impressive momentum, world-class innovation and strong leadership team, and we view this landmark investment as a strong indicator of KKR’s commitment to supporting leading technology companies in India and Asia Pacific,” he added. This is the single-largest investment (in equity terms) made from KKR’s Asia private equity business to date.

The new capital should also help Ambani, India’s richest man, further solidify his last year’s commitment to investors when he pledged to cut Reliance’s net debt of about $21 billion to zero by early 2021 — in part because of the investments it has made to build Jio Platforms. Its core business — oil refining and petrochemicals — has been hard hit by the coronavirus outbreak. Its net profit in the quarter that ended on March 31 fell by 37%.

In the company’s earnings call last month, Ambani said several firms had expressed interest in buying stakes in Jio Platforms in the wake of the deal with Facebook. Recent investments also pave the way for an initial public offering of Jio, which could happen within five years.

Beware mega-unicorn paper valuations

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

There’s a famous old post going around Twitter this week by entrepreneur and developer David Heinemeier Hansson (@DHH). DHH is a critic of certain elements of the startup world, especially wild valuations. This entry from him is, in my view, a classic of the genre.

The post in question is titled “Facebook is not worth $33,000,000,000,” and was written back in 2010.

You can already imagine who might find the post irksome — namely folks who are in the business of putting capital into high-growth companies. This sort of snark, though not precisely recent, is a good example of how posts like the Facebook entry are read on Twitter.

If you take a moment to actually read DHH’s blog, however, you’ll find that the first part of his argument is that selling a minute slice of a company at a high price, thus “revaluing” the company at a new, stratospheric valuation, is a little silly. DHH didn’t like that by selling a few percentage points of itself, Facebook’s worth was pegged at $33 billion. We’ve seen some similarly-small-dollar, high-valuation rounds recently that could be scooted into the same bucket.

It’s a somewhat fair point.

But what struck me this morning while re-reading the DHH piece was that his second two points are useful rubrics for framing the modern, post-unicorn era. DHH wrote that profits matter, companies are ultimately valued on them, and that companies that don’t scale financial results as they add customers (or users) aren’t great.

Aspiration, the LA-based fintech focused on conscious consumerism, raises $135 million

By Jonathan Shieber

When former Bill Clinton speechwriter and political wunderkind Andrei Cherny launched Aspiration four years ago, the upstart fintech startup was one of Los Angeles’ early entrants into a  financial services market dominated by players from Europe and the financial capital of the U.S. in New York City.

Fast forward four years and the big New York fintechs are still around, but Cherny’s Aspiration remains undimmed and has today disclosed a $153 million funding round to get even bigger.

Unlike other financial services startups that compete around a suite of product offerings designed to offer no-fee checking and deposits or upfront cash payments and short-term no-interest loans, Aspiration differentiates itself with a focus on sustainability and conscious consumerism.

The company first pitched the market with an investment management service like those from Betterment and Wealthfront, but one where customers could choose their own fees. It also guaranteed investments in sustainable companies and a portfolio that would not include fossil fuel companies or other businesses deemed to be less-than-friendly to Mother Nature.

The conscious consumerism is a through-line that knits together the other products in the Aspiration portfolio including its Impact Measurement Score product that gives customers a window into how their shopping habits measure up with their desires to be more earth-friendly.

The company’s just-announced $135 million cash infusion brings the total capital raised to $200 million and was led by local investor Alpha Edison. Additional new and existing investors including UBS O’Connor Capital Solutions, DNS Capital, Radicle Impact, Sutter Rock, Jeff Skoll, Joseph Sanberg, Social Impact Finance, the Pohlad Companies, and AGO Partners, also participated in the financing.

So far, 1.5 million Americans have signed up to use Aspiration’s financial management and banking services and the company has seen $4 billion in transactions pass through its accounts.

There’s a whole suite of new services designed to help customers go green too. The company launched a matching feature where the company plants a tree for every debit card purchase that its customers make, when they round up to the nearest dollar. And it’s offering a premium subscription tier that includes debit cards made from recycled ocean plastic. The card offers higher cash back and interest rates and a feature that offsets the carbon emissions of every mile a customer drives.

Finally, Aspiration has inked partnerships with other socially conscious companies like Toms and Warby Parker giving its customers extra cash back rewards when they shop at those businesses.

“Aspiration has built deep, trusting customer relationships that are beginning to unlock latent demand for financial services among the tens of millions of conscious consumers,” said Nate Redmond of Alpha Edison, in a statement. “We are excited to lead a great group of investors to fuel Aspiration’s durable growth and lasting impact.”

This UX specialist opened 12 UK bank accounts and ‘logged everything’

By Steve O'Hear

“I’ve got a really high attention to detail, which might sound great, but it’s possibly a curse because I can’t help but spot problems with everything around me,” says Peter Ramsey .

He’s the founder of Built for Mars, a U.K.-based UX advisory, and he has spent the last three months documenting and analyzing the user experience of a dozen leading British banks — both incumbents and challengers — including Barclays, HSBC, Santander, Monzo, Starling and Revolut.

“Quite literally, I opened 12 real bank accounts,” he explains. “You remember the stress of opening one account? I did that 12 times, [and] it was probably a terrible idea. But I really needed to control as many variables as possible, and this was the only way of doing that.”

Next, Ramsey says he “logged everything,” recording every click, screen and action. “I saved every letter, and made a note of when they arrived. I recorded pretty much everything I could,” he recalls. “At one point I even weighed all the debit cards to see if some were heavier. That was a total waste of time though, because they all weighed the same amount. But you see what I mean, I just thought about making it as scientific as possible. Also, UX is really quite subjective, so I wanted to back up my opinions with some more quantifiable metrics.”

The resulting analysis — covering opening an account, making a first payment and freezing your card — supported by individual bank case studies, is being published on the Built for Mars website over the month with a new interactive chapter released weekly.

After being given early access to the first three chapters and an initial series of case studies, I put several questions to Ramsey to understand his motivation, methodology and what he learned. And if you’re wondering which bank came out on top, keep reading.

TechCrunch: Why did you choose to do this on banks?

Peter Ramsey: My background is in fintech, and I think the banks are just in this weird place right now. When they first came out I think consumers were surprised at how much better the apps were. Banking was renowned for having old software, it was almost acceptable for an old bank to be buggy. But now that these challenger banks have been out for five years, I think that perception has changed. So I chose the banks because they represent this industry of “challenger” versus “legacy.” Plus, for billion-dollar companies, you’d expect them all to really care about experience.

Facebook rolls out feature to help women in India easily lock their accounts

By Manish Singh

Facebook has rolled out a new safety feature in India that will enable users to easily lock their account so that people they are not friends with on the platform cannot view their posts and zoom into and download their profile picture and cover photo.

The feature is especially aimed at women to give them more control over their Facebook experience, the company said. “We are deeply aware of the concerns people in India, particularly women, have about protecting their online profile,” said Ankhi Das, Public Policy Director at Facebook India, in a statement.

Locking the profile applies multiple existing privacy settings and several new measures to a user’s Facebook profile in a few taps, the company said. Once a user has locked their account, people they are not friends with will no longer be able to see photos and posts — both historic and new — and zoom into, share, and download profile pictures and cover photos.

“We have often heard from young girls that they are hesitant to share about themselves online and are intimidated by the idea of someone misusing their information. I am very happy to see that Facebook is making efforts to learn about their concerns and building products that can give them the experience they want. This new safety feature will give women, especially young girls a chance to express themselves freely,” said Ranjana Kumari, Director at New Delhi-based women advocacy group Centre for Social Research, in a statement.

A user can lock the account by tapping on More under their name, then tapping the Lock Profile button and the confirmation button that prompts afterward.

Prior to Thursday’s announcement, this feature was available to users in Bangladesh, a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The new feature appears to be an extension of a similar effort Facebook made in 2017 in India to combat catfishing. That feature, called Profile Picture Guard, allowed users to protect their profile picture from being zoomed into and shared by their friends and those not in the friend list.

Mapbox and SoftBank form joint venture to provide mapping tech to Japanese developers

By Catherine Shu

SoftBank Corp. and Mapbox, the mapping data company that competes with Google and Here, announced that they have established a joint venture called Mapbox Japan.

The JV will provide Mapbox’s mapping platform, including APIs and data services, to developers in Japan. Between June 1 and September 30, Mapbox Japan will also provide up to three months of free support for organizations building COVID-19 related mapping services, including infection cases and statistical data, for developers in the country, which has relied on tracking virus clusters to limit the spread of infections.

Mapbox collects data from sources including government and commercial databases, and uses them in customizable AI-based APIs, SDKs and other products. Its clients have included Facebook, Snap, the New York Times, the Federal Communications Commission and automotive companies like Land Rover and Rimac.

Founded in 2010 by Eric Gunderson, Mapbox says its tech now reaches more than 600 million monthly users. SoftBank Vision Fund led Mapbox’s $164 million Series C in 2017. At the time, Gunderson told TechCrunch that part of the funding would be used to expand in Asia through SoftBank’s presence in regions including Southeast Asia and China.

Mapbox has operated in Japan since July 2019, though that was through partnerships with Yahoo! Japan and Zenrin, one of the country’s biggest mapping software companies. Zenrin also has a partnership with Google Maps, but early last year Google began reducing the amount of mapping data it uses from Zenrin, possibly to focus on building its own trove of mapping data in Japan.

Working closely with Zenrin opens potential new opportunities for Mapbox in Japan. Last year, Gunderson told Nikkei Asian Review that “we are going to be the number one mapping provider in all of Japan and we’ll be able to do this because we have the best data in all of Japan through our partnership with Zenrin.” The company plans to develop products for the Japanese market that include mapping services for industrial automation.

In SoftBank’s announcement, Eric Gan, SoftBank Corp. head of business development, said, “I am very excited to bring Mapbox’s technology to Japan to help enterprises enhance their existing mapping services while also creating new customizable location-based services and management tools. We are seeing a significant rise in demand for Mapbox’s products from retail, ride-share, hotel, office-sharing, payment, mobility and manufacturing industries.”

Monzo co-founder Tom Blomfield moves from UK CEO role to president

By Steve O'Hear

More than five years after starting the company, Monzo co-founder Tom Blomfield is stepping down as CEO of the U.K. challenger bank to take up the newly created role of President.

Current U.S. CEO, TS Anil, will become the new “Monzo UK Bank CEO”, subject to regulatory approval, and for now will hold both U.K. and U.S. roles.

Anil previously held exec roles at Visa, Standard Chartered Bank, and Citi, and therefore brings a ton of banking and financial services experience. This includes things like dealing with regulators and overseeing a large corporate structure, two things a scale-up challenger bank like Monzo, with more than 4 million customers and over 1,500 staff, requires.

The thinking behind Blomfield’s move to President is a startup cliche but also likely holds water; he’ll be able to spend more time doing the things he enjoys most (and is arguably best at), such as focusing on the longer term vision, product and how Monzo can stay close to and best serve customers. Meanwhile, Anil — and, in the future, other country-specific CEOs — can do the day to day, more regulated aspects of running a bank.

In a brief call with Blomfield just moments ago, he told me he had been thinking about a transition into a different role for about 18 months, but it wasn’t until much more recently that a formal decision was taken.

“I went through all the stuff I love about my job, and it was all the stuff I did in the first two or three years,” he said. “And I went through all the stuff that drains me, and it’s all the stuff I’ve done in the last two years, honestly. Things I think TS is awesome at”.

Although it is unlikely that a huge amount will change immediately, Blomfield says he hopes that he’ll be able to spend a “bunch more time doing the stuff I really really love, which is community, talking to customers, helping develop the product proposition, long term vision, and talking to journalists, like you Steve, obviously, and try to unwind my involvement a little bit in more formal regulated banking activities”.

Meanwhile, it has been somewhat of a turbulent time for Monzo in recent months, as it, along with many other fintech companies, has attempted to insulate itself from the coronavirus crisis and resulting economic downturn.

Last month, I reported that Monzo was shuttering its customer support office in Las Vegas, seeing 165 customer support staff in the U.S. lose their jobs. And just a few weeks earlier, we reported that the bank was furloughing up to 295 staff under the U.K.’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. In addition, the senior management team and the board has volunteered to take a 25% cut in salary, and co-founder and CEO Tom Blomfield has decided not to take a salary for the next twelve months.

Like other banks and fintechs, the coronavirus crisis has resulted in Monzo seeing customer card spend reduce at home and (of course) abroad, meaning it is generating significantly less revenue from interchange fees. The bank has also postponed the launch of premium paid-for consumer accounts, one of only a handful of known planned revenue streams, alongside lending, of course.

And just last week, it was reported that Monzo is closing in on £70-80 million in top up funding, to help extend its coronavirus crisis runaway. However, as new and some existing investors play hardball, the company has reportedly had to accept a 40% reduction in its previously £2 billion valuation as part of its last funding round last June, with a new valuation of £1.25 billion.

With that said, it’s not all been bad news. Monzo recently launched business accounts, many of which are revenue generating, with both free and paid tiers. It also recruited Sujata Bhatia, a former American Express executive in Europe, as its new COO.

And, hopefully, in his new role as President, Blomfield will sound a little more energised next time I call him.

India’s Khatabook raises $60 million to help merchants digitize bookkeeping and accept payments online

By Manish Singh

Khatabook, a startup that is helping small businesses in India record financial transactions digitally and accept payments online with an app, has raised $60 million in a new financing round as it looks to gain more ground in the world’s second most populous nation.

The new financing round, Series B, was led by Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s B Capital. A range of other new and existing investors, including Sequoia India, Partners of DST Global, Tencent, GGV Capital, RTP Global, Hummingbird Ventures, Falcon Edge Capital, Rocketship.vc and Unilever Ventures, also participated in the round, as did Facebook’s Kevin Weil, Calm’s Alexander Will, CRED’s Kunal Shah and Snapdeal co-founders Kunal Bahl and Rohit Bansal.

The one-and-a-half-year-old startup, which closed its Series A financing round in October last year and has raised $87 million to date, is now valued between $275 million to $300 million, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

Hundreds of millions of Indians came online in the last decade, but most merchants — think of neighborhood stores — are still offline in the country. They continue to rely on long notebooks to keep a log of their financial transactions. The process is also time-consuming and prone to errors, which could result in substantial losses.

Khatabook, as well as a handful of young and established players in the country, is attempting to change that by using apps to allow merchants to digitize their bookkeeping and also accept payments.

Today more than 8 million merchants from over 700 districts actively use Khatabook, its co-founder and chief executive Ravish Naresh told TechCrunch in an interview.

“We spent most of last year growing our user base,” said Naresh. And that bet has worked for Khatabook, which today competes with Lightspeed -backed OkCredit, Ribbit Capital-backed BharatPe, Walmart’s PhonePe and Paytm, all of which have raised more money than Khatabook.

khatabook team

The Khatabook team poses for a picture (Khatabook)

According to mobile insight firm AppAnnie, Khatabook had more than 910,000 daily active users as of earlier this month, ahead of Paytm’s merchant app, which is used each day by about 520,000 users, OkCredit with 352,000 users, PhonePe with 231,000 users and BharatPe, with some 120,000 users.

All of these firms have seen a decline in their daily active users base in recent months as India enforced a stay-at-home order for all its citizens and shut most stores and public places. But most of the aforementioned firms have only seen about 10-20% decline in their usage, according to AppAnnie.

Because most of Khatabook’s merchants stay in smaller cities and towns that are away from large cities and operate in grocery stores or work in agritech — areas that are exempted from New Delhi’s stay-at-home orders, they have been less impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, said Naresh.

Naresh declined to comment on AppAnnie’s data, but said merchants on the platform were adding $200 million worth of transactions on the Khatabook app each day.

In a statement, Kabir Narang, a general partner at B Capital who also co-heads the firm’s Asia business, said, “we expect the number of digitally sophisticated MSMEs to double over the next three to five years. Small and medium-sized businesses will drive the Indian economy in the era of COVID-19 and they need digital tools to make their businesses efficient and to grow.”

Khatabook will deploy the new capital to expand the size of its technology team as it looks to build more products. One such product could be online lending for these merchants, Naresh said, with some others exploring to solve other challenges these small businesses face.

Amit Jain, former head of Uber in India and now a partner at Sequoia Capital, said more than 50% of these small businesses are yet to get online. According to government data, there are more than 60 million small and micro-sized businesses in India.

India’s payments market could reach $1 trillion by 2023, according to a report by Credit Suisse .

70% of Indian startups will run out of money in less than 3 months

By Manish Singh

More than two-thirds of startups in India need to secure additional capital in the coming weeks to steer through the coronavirus pandemic, according to an industry report.

70% of startups in India, home to one of the world’s largest startup ecosystems, have less than three months of cash runway in the bank, and another 22% have enough to barely make it to the end of the year, according to a survey conducted by industry body Nasscom.

Only 8% of startups that participated in Nasscom’s survey said they had enough money to survive for more than nine months, the report published on Tuesday said.

As startups confront unprecedented times, many are thinking of taking dramatic steps to stay afloat. About 54% of some 250 respondents said they were looking to pivot to new business opportunities, and 40% said they wanted to diversify into growth verticals such as healthcare.

The cash crunch comes as investors become cautious about writing new checks to young firms in the country. In an open letter several prominent VC funds warned startups that they may find it especially challenging to raise new capital in the next few months.

For some startups, there are other factors at play, too. More than 69% of business-to-business startups, especially those operating in retail and fintech categories, say in the report that they are facing delays in payments from their clients.

This has left more than 50% of such startups to enforce pay cuts, reduction in marketing spends, and a quarter of them to switch to a lower-cost vendor to save money.

Startups operating in transport and travel sectors are also severely impacted, with 78% of respondents saying they were rethinking their business models and tweaking their products in accordance with the current scenario.

In a call with reporters on Tuesday, executives at Oyo unveiled new steps the budget lodging startup had taken at its hotels to ensure safety for operators and customers. They also said they were hoping that the government would allow more people to travel and stay at hotels again.

More than two-thirds of startups said they were looking for policies that eased regulations and spur government purchases. Many also requested relief in taxations for a few years.

More than two-thirds of Indian startups believe the impact of coronavirus will linger for up to 12 months. (Nasscom)

Earlier this month, India announced a $266 billion stimulus package to help revive the stalled economy. On Saturday, Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that startups too will be able to access some of this relief — though details remain sparse on how they should go about it.

Since 2017, India’s startup ecosystem has grown consistently. Last year, startups in the country raised a record $14.5 billion.

“Out of the blue, this flourishing growth saga has suddenly been hit by a roadblock… the COVID roadblock. There is no country, business or living being that has not been affected by the COVID pandemic. While governments have been working diligently to protect and save human lives, businesses have been hit and small businesses and start-ups have been the most affected,” said Debjani Ghosh, President of NASSCOM, in the report.

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