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Yesterday — December 5th 2020Your RSS feeds

Mike Cagney is testing the boundaries of the banking system for himself and others

By Connie Loizos

Founder Mike Cagney is always pushing the envelope, and investors love him for it. Not long sexual harassment allegations prompted him to leave SoFi, the personal finance company that he cofounded in 2011, he raised $50 million for new lending startup called Figure that has since raised at least $225 million from investors and was valued a year ago at $1.2 billion.

Now, Cagney is trying to do something unprecedented with Figure, which says it uses a blockchain to more quickly facilitate home equity, mortgage refinance, and student and personal loan approvals. The company has applied for a national bank charter in the U.S., wherein it would not take FDIC-insured deposits but it could take uninsured deposits of over $250,000 from accredited investors.

Why does it matter? The approach, as American Banker explains it, would bring regulatory benefits. As it reported earlier this week, “Because Figure Bank would not hold insured deposits, it would not be subject to the FDIC’s oversight. Similarly, the absence of insured deposits would prevent oversight by the Fed under the Bank Holding Company Act. That law imposes restrictions on non-banking activities and is widely thought to be a deal-breaker for tech companies where banking would be a sidelight.”

Indeed, if approved, Figure could pave the way for a lot of fintech startups — and other retail companies that want to wheel and deal lucrative financial products without the oversight of the Federal Reserve Board or the FDIC — to nab non-traditional bank charters.

As Michelle Alt, whose year-old financial advisory firm helped Figure with its application, tells AB: “This model, if it’s approved, wouldn’t be for everyone. A lot of would-be banks want to be banks specifically to have more resilient funding sources.” But if it’s successful, she adds, “a lot of people will be interested.”

One can only guess at what the ripple effects would be, though the Bank of Amazon wouldn’t surprise anyone who follows the company.

In the meantime, the strategy would seemingly be a high-stakes, high-reward development for a smaller outfit like Figure, which could operate far more freely than banks traditionally but also without a safety net for itself or its customers. The most glaring danger would be a bank run, wherein those accredited individuals who are today willing to lend money to the platform at high interest rates began demanding their money back at the same time. (It happens.)

Either way, Cagney might find a receptive audience right now with Brian Brooks, a longtime Fannie Mae executive who served as Coinbase’s chief legal officer for two years before jumping this spring to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), an agency that ensures that national banks and federal savings associations operate in a safe and sound manner.

Brooks was made acting head of the agency in May and green-lit one of the first national charters to go to a fintech, Varo Money, this past summer. In late October, the OCC also granted SoFi preliminary, conditional approval over its own application for a national bank charter.

While Brooks isn’t commenting on speculation around Figure’s application, in July, during a Brookings Institution event, he reportedly commented about trade groups’ concerns over his efforts to grant fintechs and payments companies charters, saying: “I think the misunderstanding that some of these trade groups are operating under is that somehow this is going to trigger a lighter-touch charter with fewer obligations, and it’s going to make the playing field un-level . . . I think it’s just the opposite.”

Christopher Cole, executive vice president at the trade group Independent Community Bankers of America, doesn’t seem persuaded. Earlier this week, he expressed concern about Figure’s bank charter application to AB, saying he suspects that Brooks “wants to approve this quickly before he leaves office.”

Brooks’s days are surely numbered. Last month, he was nominated by President Donald to a full five-year term leading the federal bank regulator and is currently awaiting Senate confirmation. The move — designed to slow down the incoming Biden administration — could be undone by President-elect Joe Biden, who can fire the comptroller of the currency at will and appoint an acting replacement to serve until his nominee is confirmed by the Senate.

Still, Cole’s suggestion is that Brooks still has enough time to figure out a path forward for Figure — and if its novel charter application is approved, and it stands up to legal challenges — a lot of other companies, too.

 

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Grab-Singtel and Ant Group win digital bank licenses in Singapore

By Manish Singh

Singapore on Friday granted four firms, including Ant Group and Grab, licenses to run digital banks in the Southeast Asian country, in a move that would allow the tech giants to expand their financial services offerings.

The nation’s central bank, Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), said it applied a “rigorous, merit-based process” to select a strong slate of digital banks. As these digital banks start their pilot operations, MAS said it will review whether more companies could be granted this license.

A total of 21 firms, including TikTok-parent firm ByteDance, had applied to get a digital license, of which 14 met the eligibility criteria, MAS said. Tech giants see a major opportunity in expanding to financial services as a way to supercharge their revenue in the rapidly growing region.

The other two licenses went to an entity wholly owned by internet giant Sea, and a consortium of Greenland Financial Holdings, Linklogis Hong Kong and Beijing Cooperative Equity Investment Fund Management.

Like traditional banks, Grab-Singtel and Sea will be able to offer customers banking accounts, debit and credit cards and other services. Digital wholesale banks — the licenses of which went to Ant-owned entity and Greenland Financial consortium — will serve small and medium-sized businesses. None of them will be required to have a physical presence.

“We expect them to thrive alongside the incumbent banks and raise the industry’s bar in delivering quality financial services, particularly for currently underserved businesses and individuals,” said MAS MD Ravi Menon in a statement. A handful of countries, including the U.K., India and Hong Kong, have streamlined their regulations in recent years to grant tech companies the ability to operate as digital banks.

Ride-hailing firm Grab and telecom operator Singtel formed a consortium last year to apply for the digital full bank license. Their combined experience and expertise “will further our goal to empower more people to gain better control of their money and achieve better economic outcomes for themselves, their businesses and families,” said Anthony Tan, Group CEO & co-founder of Grab, in a statement Friday.

“Over the years, Ant Group has accumulated substantial experience and proven success, especially in China where we work with partner financial institutions to serve the needs of SMEs,” Ant Group said in a statement. “We look forward to building stronger and deeper collaborations with all participants in the financial services industry in Singapore.”

Helping big banks out-Affirm Affirm and out-Chime Chime gives Amount a $681 million valuation

By Jonathan Shieber

Amount, a new service that helps traditional banks compete in a digital world, has raised $81 million from none other than Goldman Sachs as it looks to help legacy fintech players compete with their more nimble digital counterparts.

The company, which spun out from the startup lending company Avant in January of this year, has already inked deals with Banco Popular, HSBC, Regions Bank and TD Bank to power their digital banking services and offer products like point-of-sale lending to compete with challenger banks like Chime and lenders like Affirm or Klarna.

“Most banks are looking for resources and infrastructure to accelerate their digital strategy and meet the demands of today’s consumer,” said Jade Mandel, a Vice President in Goldman Sachs’ growth equity platform, GS Growth, who will be joining the Board of Directors at Amount, in a statement. “Amount enables banks to navigate digital transformation through its modular and mobile-first platform for financial products. We’re excited to partner with the team as they take on this compelling market opportunity.”

Complimenting those customer facing services is a deep expertise in fraud prevention on the back-end to help banks provide more loans with less risk than competitors, according to chief executive Adam Hughes.

It’s the combination of these three services that led Goldman to take point on a new $81 million investment in the company, with participation from previous investors August Capital, Invus Opportunities and Hanaco Ventures — giving Amount a post-money valuation of $681 million and bringing the company’s total capital raised in 2020 to a whopping $140 million.

Think of Amount as a white-labeled digital banking service provider for luddite banks that hadn’t upgraded their services to keep pace with demands of a new generation of customers or the COVID-19 era of digital-first services for everything.

Banks pay a pretty penny for access to Amount’s services. On top of a percentage for any loans that the bank process through Amount’s services, there’s an up-front implementation fee that typically averages at $1 million.

The hefty price tag is a sign of how concerned banks are about their digital challengers. Hughes said that they’ve seen a big uptick in adoption since the launch of their buy-now-pay-later product designed to compete with the fast growing startups like Affirm and Klarna .

Indeed, by offering banks these services, Amount gives Klarna and Affirm something to worry about. That’s because banks conceivably have a lower cost of capital than the startups and can offer better rates to borrowers. They also have the balance sheet capacity to approve more loans than either of the two upstart lenders.

 “Amount has the wind at its back and the industry is taking notice,” said Nigel Morris, the co-founder of CapitalOne and an investor in Amount through the firm QED Investors. “The latest round brings Amount’s total capital raised in 2020 to nearly $140M, which will provide for additional investments in platform research and development while accelerating the company’s go-to-market strategy. QED is thrilled to be a part of Amount’s story and we look forward to the company’s future success as it plays a vital role in the digitization of financial services.”

FT Partners served as advisor to Amount on this transaction.

Revolut launches early salary feature in the UK and web app

By Romain Dillet

Fintech startup Revolut has two new features this week. First, the company is launching a web app for its regular users — not just business users. Second, in the U.K., Revolut has partnered with Modulr to let you receive your salary a day early.

Revolut has historically focused its efforts on its mobile app. If you have a business account with Revolut, you know that you can see your past transactions and access your account from a regular web browser. But the company’s 13 million customers couldn’t access their account from a computer.

Everyone can now head over to Revolut’s web app and sign in to view their transaction history and cards. From this interface, you can freeze and unfreeze a debit card and control card features. The web app also supports account top-ups using a bank transfer, a card payment or Apple Pay (in Safari).

By default, Revolut sends a push notification so that you can authorize web browser access. But if you’ve lost your phone, you can also choose to receive a security code via email.

You’ll still have to use the mobile app to access some features, but it’s a start.

As for users living in the U.K., Revolut is doubling down on its partnership with Modulr to send your salary a bit early. Salaries made over the Bacs payment scheme will arrive a day earlier than usual — most people are paid using this method in the U.K. This is all about optimizing payment infrastructure, and it could be particularly helpful before a long holiday weekend.

This should also benefit Revolut directly as many users have been using Revolut in addition to a regular bank account. Adding features that make it easier to ditch your bank account could boost the company’s usage numbers. And that could help the company grow its card interchange fees, subscription revenue and other sources of revenue.

SoftBank, Volvo back Flock Freight with $113.5M to help shippers share the load

By Kirsten Korosec

Everyday thousands of trucks carry freight along U.S. highways, propelling the economy forward as consumer goods, electronics, cars and agriculture make their way to distribution centers, stores and eventually households. It’s inside these trucks — many of which sit half empty — where Flock Freight, a five-year-old startup out of San Diego, believes it can transform the industry.

Now, it has the funds to try and do it.

Flock Freight said Tuesday it has raised $113.5 million in a Series C round led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2. Existing investors SignalFire, GLP Capital Partners and Google Ventures also participated in the round, in addition to a new minority investment by strategic partner Volvo Group Venture Capital. Ervin Tu, managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, will join Flock Freight’s board. The company, which has raised $184 million to date, has post-funding valuation of $500 million, according to a source familiar with the deal who confirmed an earlier report by Bloomberg.

A slew of startups have popped up in the past several years all aiming to use technology to transform trucking — the backbone of the U.S. economy that moves more than 70% of all U.S. freight — into a more efficient machine. Most have focused on building digital freight networks that connect truckers with shippers.

Flock Freight has focused instead on the shipments themselves. The company created a software platform that helps pool shipments into a single shared truckload to make carrying freight more efficient. Flock Freight says its software avoids the traditional hub-and-spoke system, which is dominated by trucks with less than a full load, known in the industry as LTL. Flock Freight says that by pooling shipments that are going the same direction onto one truck, freight-related carbon emissions can be reduced by 40%.

The funds will be used to hire more employees; it has 129 employees to date.

“Unlike the digital freight-matching category that uses technology to simply improve efficiency as workflow automation, Flock Freight uses technology to power a new shipping mode (shared truckload) that makes freight transportation more efficient. The impact of Flock Freight’s algorithms is that shippers no longer need to adhere to LTL constraints for freight that measures up to 44 linear feet; instead, they can classify it as ‘shared truckload,'” Oren Zaslansky, founder and CEO of Flock Freight said in a statement. “Shippers can use Flock Freight’s efficient shared truckload solution to accommodate high demand and increased urgency.”

Their pitch has been compelling enough to attract a diverse mix of venture firms and corporate investors such as Volvo and Softbank.

“Flock Freight is improving supply chain efficiency for hundreds of thousands of shippers. Our investment is intended to accelerate the company’s ability to scale its business and capture a greater share of the market,” said Tu, Managing Partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers.

Novakid’s ESL app for children raises $4.25M Series A led by PortfoLio and LearnStart investors

By Mike Butcher

With the pandemic playing havoc with children’s education EdTech startups have been on a roll. A new fundraising seems to come almost every week at this point.

Today it’s Novakid’s turn. This EdTech startup is yet another ‘learning English as a second language for children’ startup. But it at least has a chance among the plethora of solutions out there, having raised a $4.25 million Series A financing led by Hungary-based PortfoLion (part of OTP, a leading banking group in Eastern Europe), alongside a prominent EdTech-focused US fund LearnStart. LearnStart is part of the LearnCapital VC which has previously backed VIPKID and Brilliant.org. TMT Investments and Xploration Capital also joined the round. Both seed investors – South Korea-based BonAngels, as well as LETA Capital, took part in this financing round in January this year, of $1.5M.

Novakid’s teaching method is based around the ideas of language acquisition by Asher, Thornbury, Krashen and Chomsky, and it is specifically suited for children aged 4-12. It is incorporated in the US with development and customer support around Europe.

Max Azarow, Co-founder and CEO said: “Novakid is reinventing English learning for kids in countries where English is not a primary spoken language. There, English would usually be taught as an abstract subject, with focus on grammar and with little live practice offered. Novakid on the other hand, implements a unique format that combines a highly-interactive digital curriculum and with individual live tutor sessions where students & tutor only speak English for a 100% language immersion.”

Aurél Påsztor, Partner at PortfoLion, commented: “Novakid attracted investor attention due to its excellent traction, which resulted in over 500% growth year-on-year both in terms of number of students and in terms of revenue. Other attractive points were strong customer retention, international business footprint and a solid monetization via paid subscriptions.”

Nordigen introduces free European open banking API

By Romain Dillet

Latvian fintech startup Nordigen is switching to a freemium model thanks to a free open banking API. Open banking was supposed to democratize access to banking information, but the company believes banking aggregation APIs from Tink or Plaid are too expensive. Instead, Nordigen thinks it can provide a free API to access account information and paid services for analytics and insights services.

Open banking is a broad term and means different things, from account aggregation to verifying account ownership and payment initiation. The most basic layer of open banking is the ability to view data from third-party financial institutions. For instance, some banks let you connect to other bank accounts so that you can view all your bank accounts from a single interface.

There are two ways to connect to a bank. Some banks provide an application programming interface (API), which means that you can send requests to the bank’s servers and receive data in return.

While all financial institutions should have an open API due to the European PSD2 directive, many banks are still dragging their feet. That’s why open banking API companies usually rely on screen scraping. They mimic web browser interactions, which means that it’s slow, it requires a ton of server resources and it can break.

“If you’re wondering how we’d be able to afford it, our free banking data API was designed purely with PSD2 in mind, meaning it’s lightweight in strong contrast to that of incumbents. So it wouldn’t significantly increase our costs to scale free users,” Nordigen co-founder and CEO Rolands Mesters told me.

So you don’t get total coverage with Nordigen’s API. The startup currently supports 300 European banks, which covers 60 to 90% of the population in each country. But it’s hard to complain when it’s a free product anyway.

Some Nordigen customers will probably want more information. Nordigen provides financial data analytics. It can be particularly useful if you’re a lending company trying to calculate a credit score, if you’re a financial company with minimum income requirements and more.

For those additional services, you’ll have to pay. Nordigen currently has 50 clients and expects to attract more customers with its new freemium strategy.

India sets rules for commissions, surge pricing for Uber and Ola

By Manish Singh

Ride-hailing firms such as Ola and Uber can only draw a fee of up to 20% on ride fares in India, New Delhi said in guidelines on Friday, a new setback for the SoftBank-backed firms already struggling to improve their finances in the key overseas market.

The guidelines, which for the first time bring modern-age app-based ride-hailing firms under a regulatory framework in the country, also put a cap on the so-called surge pricing, the fare Uber and Ola charge during hours when their services see peak demands.

According to the guidelines, Ola and Uber — and any other app-operated, ride-hailing firm — can charge a maximum of 1.5 times of the base fare. They can, however, choose to offer their services at 50% of the base fare as well. The rules also state that drivers will not be permitted to work for more than 12 hours in a day, and that the companies need to provide them insurance cover.

Uber and Ola have not previously publicly shared precisely how much they charge their drivers for each ride, but industry estimates show that a driver partner with either of these firms makes up to 74% of the ride fare, after paying taxes. The new guidelines say drivers should get to keep at least 80% of fares.

The cap on the ride fare and implied insurance costs will raise operating costs in India for Uber and Ola, both of which have eliminated jobs in recent months amid the pandemic to trim costs. The South Asian nation, which has attracted many giant international firms in recent years as they look for their next growth market, in the meantime has entered an unprecedented recession.

But not everything about the guidelines will hurt Uber and Ola, both of which had no comment to share on Friday. The rules will enable the companies to offer pooling (shared car) services on private cars, though there is a daily limit of four intra-city rides on such cars, and two weekly inter-city rides.

Ujjwal Chaudhry, an associate partner at Bangalore-based marketing research consulting firm Redseer, said the guidelines by the government will have a mixed impact.

“While it is positive in terms of formalizing the sector as well as increasing the consumer trust on aggregators through improved safety regulations. But, overall the impact of these guidelines on the ecosystem growth are negative as capping surge and platform fee will ultimately lead to reduced earnings for 5 Lac (500,000) drivers (currently on these platforms) and will also lead to increased prices and higher wait times for the 6-8 crore (60 to 80 million) consumers who use it for their mobility and commute needs,” he said in a statement.

The rules also address a range of other factors surrounding a ride. For instance, under no circumstance can the cancellation fee imposed on a rider or driver be more than 10% of the total fare, and the fee cannot exceed 100 Indian rupees, or $1.35. Also, female passengers looking for a pooled service will have the option to share the cab with only female passengers, the rules say. Cab aggregators are also required to establish a control room with round-the-clock operations.

Ola and Uber dominate the app-based ride-hailing market in India. Both the companies claim to lead the market, though SoftBank, a common investor, said recently that Ola had a slight lead over Uber in India.

HMBradley raises $18.25 million planting a flag as LA’s entrant into the challenger bank business

By Jonathan Shieber

With $90 million in deposits and $18.25 million in new financing, HMBradley is making moves as the Los Angeles-based entrant into the challenger bank competition.

LA is home to a growing community of financial services startups and HMBradley is quickly taking its place among the leaders with a novel twist on the banking business.

Unlike most banking startups that woo customers with easy credit and savvy online user interfaces, HMBradley is pitching a better savings account.

The company offers up to 3% interest on its savings accounts, much higher than most banks these days, and it’s that pitch that has won over consumers and investors alike, according to the company’s co-founder and chief executive, Zach Bruhnke.

With climbing numbers on the back of limited marketing, Bruhnke said raising the company’s latest round of financing was a breeze. 

“They knew after the first call that they wanted to do it,” Brunke said of the negotiations with the venture capital firm Acrew, a venture firm whose previous exposure to fintech companies included backing the challenger bank phenomenon which is Chime . “It was a very different kind of fundraise for us. Our seed round was a terrible, treacherous 16-month fundraise,” Brunke said.

For Acrew’s part, the company actually had to call Chime’s founder to ensure that the company was okay with the venture firm backing another entrant into the banking business. Once the approval was granted, Brunke said the deal was smooth sailing.

Acrew, Chime, and HMBradley’s founders see enough daylight between the two business models that investing in one wouldn’t be a conflict of interest with the other. And there’s plenty of space for new entrants in the banking business, Bruhnke said. “It’s a very, very large industry as a whole,” he said.

As the company grows its deposits, Bruhnke said there will be several ways it can leverage its capital. That includes commercial lending on the back end of HMBradley’s deposits and other financial services offerings to grow its base.

For now, it’s been wooing consumers with one click credit applications and the high interest rates it offers to its various tiers of savers.

“When customers hit that 3% tier they get really excited,” Bruhnke said. “If you’re saving money and you’re not saving to HMBradley then you’re losing money.”

The money that HMBradley raised will be used to continue rolling out its new credit product and hiring staff. It already poached the former director of engineering at Capital One, Ben Coffman, and fintech thought leader Saira Rahman, the company said. 

In October, the company said, deposits doubled month-over-month and transaction volume has grown to over $110 million since it launched in April. 

Since launching the company’s cash back credit card in July, HMBradley has been able to pitch customers on 3% cash back for its highest tier of savers — giving them the option to earn 3.5% on their deposits.

The deposit and lending capabilities the company offers are possible because of its partnership with the California-based Hatch Bank, the company said.

Mobile banking app Current raises $131M Series C, tops 2 million members

By Sarah Perez

U.S. challenger bank Current, which has doubled its member base in less than six months, announced this morning it raised $131 million in Series C funding, led by Tiger Global Management. The additional financing brings Current to over $180 million in total funding to date, and gives the company a valuation of $750 million.

The round also brought in new investors Sapphire Ventures and Avenir. Existing investors returned for the Series C, as well, including Foundation Capital, Wellington Management Company and QED.

Current began as a teen debit card controlled by parents, but expanded to offer personal checking accounts last year, using the same underlying banking technology. The service today competes with a range of mobile banking apps, offering features like free overdrafts, no minimum balance requirements, faster direct deposits, instant spending notifications, banking insights, check deposits using your phone’s camera and other now-standard baseline features for challenger banks.

In August 2020, Current debuted a points rewards program in an effort to better differentiate its service from the competition, which as of this month now includes Google Pay.

When Current raised its Series B last fall, it had over 500,000 accounts on its service. Today, it touts over 2 million members. Revenue has also grown, increasing by 500% year-over-year, the company noted today.

“We have seen a demonstrated need for access to affordable banking with a best-in-class mobile solution that Current is uniquely suited to provide,” said Current founder and CEO Stuart Sopp, in a statement about the fundraise. “We are committed to building products specifically to improve the financial outcomes of the millions of hard-working Americans who live paycheck to paycheck, and whose needs are not being properly served by traditional banks. With this new round of funding we will continue to expand on our mission, growth and innovation to find more ways to get members their money faster, help them spend it smarter and help close the financial inequality gap,” he added.

The additional funds will be used to further develop and expand Current’s mobile banking offerings, the company says.

Looking to emulate Venmo, JoomPay preps a Euro launch for easy bill splitting and cash payments

By Mike Butcher

JoomPay, a startup with a similar product to PayPayl-owned Venmo in the US, is set to launch in Europe shortly after being granted a Luxembourg Electronic Money Institution (EMI) license. The app allows people to send and receive money with anyone, instantly and for free. “Venmo me” has become a common phrase in the US, where people use it to split bills in restaurants or similar. Venmo is in common use in the US, but it’s not available in Europe, although dozens of other innovative mobile peer to peer transfer options exist, such as Revolut, N26, Monese and Monzo. The waitlist for the app’s beta is open now.

Europe leads the world’s instant payments industry, with $18 trillion in worldwide volume predicted by 2025 up from $3 trillion in 2020 – a growth of over 500%. Western Europe – and COVID-19 – is now driving that innovation and will account for 38% of instant payment transaction value by 2025. While Europe lacks simple peer-to-peer payments solutions such as Venmo or Square Cash App in the US, challenger banks have stepped up to provide similar kinds of services. JoomPay’s opportunity lies in being able to be a middle-man between these various banking systems.

Shopping app Joom, which has been downloaded 150M times in Europe, has spun-off JoomPay to solve this problem. The app allows users to send and receive money from any person, regardless of whether they use JoomPay or not – and you only need to know their email or the phone number. JoomPay connects to any existing debit/credit card or a bank account. It also provides its users with a European IBAN and an optional free JoomPay card with cashback and bonuses.

Yuri Alekseev, CEO and co-founder of JoomPay, said: “Since COVID-19 started, we’ve seen a significant decline in cash usage. People can’t meet as easily as before but still need to send money, and we offer a viable alternative.”

JoomPay may have an uphill struggle. Its main competitors in Europe are the huge TransferWise, Paysend, and of course PayPal itself.

Google-backed Chinese truck-hailing firm Manbang raises $1.7 billion

By Rita Liao

The Chinese Uber for trucks Manbang announced Tuesday that it has raised $1.7 billion in its latest funding round, two years after it hauled in $1.9 billion from investors including SoftBank Group and Alphabet Inc’s venture capital fund CapitalG.

The news came fresh off a Wall Street Journal report two weeks ago that Manbang was seeking $1 billion ahead of an initial public offering next year. The company declined to comment on the matter, though its CEO Zhang Hui said in May 2019 that the firm was “not in a rush” to go public.

Manbang said it achieved profitability this year. Its valuation was reportedly on course to reach $10 billion in 2018.

The company, which runs an app matching truck drivers and merchants transporting cargo and provides financial services to truckers, was formed from a merger between rivals Yunmanman and Huochebang in 2017. It was a time when China’s “sharing economy” craze began to see consolidation and shakeup.

The latest financing again attracted high-profile backers, including returning investors SoftBank Vision Fund and Sequoia Capital China, Permira and Fidelity, a consortium that co-led the round. Other participants were Hillhouse Capital, GGV Capital, Lightspeed China Partners, Tencent, Jack Ma’s YF Capital and more.

The company has other Alibaba ties. Its CEO Zhang, who founded Yunmanman, hailed from Alibaba’s famed B2B department where Manbang chairman Wang Gang also worked before he went on to fund ride-hailing giant Didi’s angel round.

Manbang claims its platform has over 10 million verified drivers and 5 million cargo owners. The latest funding will allow it to further invest in research and development, upgrade its matching system, and expand its service capacity to functions like door-to-door transportation.

Sequoia is quite bullish about truck-hailing as it made its sixth investment in Manbang. For Permira, a European private equity fund, the Manbang investment marked the China debut of its Growth Opportunities Fund.

N26 launches mid-tier subscription plan for €4.90 per month

By Romain Dillet

Challenger bank N26 is adding a third subscription product called N26 Smart. N26 Smart is designed to be a mid-tier subscription plan with advanced banking features but without a travel insurance package.

In Europe, in addition to the free plan, N26 already provides two subscription tiers called N26 You and N26 Metal. N26 You costs €9.90 per month and comes with higher limits, such as five free ATM withdrawals instead of three and free withdrawals in foreign currencies.

With an N26 You account, you can create sub-accounts (N26 Spaces), share them with other N26 users or use them to save money. As an N26 You subscriber, you also get a travel insurance package with medical travel insurance, trip and flight insurance and more. You can also access some partner offers.

N26 Metal is the most expensive plan and costs €16.90 per month. In addition to everything in N26 You, you get car rental insurance when you’re abroad and phone insurance. As the name suggests, you also get a metal card.

The new N26 Smart subscription costs €4.90 and works well for people who don’t need travel insurance. With an N26 Smart subscription, you can create up to ten sub-accounts. You get five free ATM withdrawals per month. You can also call N26 support directly in addition to in-app support chat.

N26 is launching a new round-up feature for N26 Smart users. It lets you round each purchase up to the nearest Europe and save it in a separate sub-account. N26 Smart account also access colorful debit cards — the same colors as N26 You.

This is just a first step as N26 plans to revamp its subscription products altogether. In the near future, N26 You will become N26 International. There will be more features focused on borderless banking. N26 Metal will become N26 Unlimited.

As for the free N26 Standard account, the company wants to focus on digital cards. Some users are going to switch to the N26 Smart plan to keep some of the features that they’ve been using with a free account. That move should help the company’s bottom line.

Image Credits: N26

ORIX invests $60M in Israeli crowdfunding platform OurCrowd

By Frederic Lardinois

Japan-based financial services group ORIX Corporation today announced that it has made a $60 million strategic investment into the Israeli crowdsourcing platform OurCrowd. In return, the crowdfunding platform will provide the firm with access to its startup network. OurCrowd also says that the two groups will collaborate to create financial products and investment opportunities for the Japanese and global market, including access to its venture funds and specific companies in the OurCrowd portfolio.

ORIX is a global leader in diversified business and financial services who will strengthen OurCrowd in many ways,” OurCrowd CEO Jon Medved said in today’s announcement. “We are enthusiastic about the potential to further transform the venture capital asset class together and provide a strong bridge for our innovative companies to the important Asian markets.”

While ORIX already operates in 37 countries, including the U.S., this is the company’s first investment in Israel. It comes at a time where Japanese investments in Israel are already surging. And earlier this year, Israel’s flag carrier El Al was about to launch direct flights to Tokyo, for example, and while the pandemic canceled those plans, it’s a clear sign of the expanding business relations between the two countries.

“We are excited about investing in OurCrowd, Israel’s most active venture investor and one of the world’s most innovative venture capital platforms,” ORIX UK CEO Kiyoshi Habiro said. “We intend to be active partners with OurCrowd and help them accelerate their already impressive growth, while bringing the best of Israeli tech to Japan’s large industrial and financial sectors.”

So far, OurCrowd has made investments in 220 companies across its 22 funds. Some of its most successful exits include Beyond Meat and Lemonade, JUMP Bike, Briefcam and Argus. ORIX, too, has quite a diverse portfolio, with investments that range from real estate to banking and energy services.

If you didn’t make $1B this week, you are not doing VC right

By Danny Crichton

The only thing more rare than a unicorn is an exited unicorn.

At TechCrunch, we cover a lot of startup financings, but we rarely get the opportunity to cover exits. This week was an exception though, as it was exitpalooza as Affirm, Roblox, Airbnb, and Wish all filed to go public. With DoorDash’s IPO filing last week, this is upwards of $100 billion in potential float heading to the public markets as we make our way to the end of a tumultuous 2020.

All those exits raise a simple question – who made the money? Which VCs got in early on some of the biggest startups of the decade? Who is going to be buying a new yacht for the family for the holidays (or, like, a fancy yurt for when Burning Man restarts)? The good news is that the wealth is being spread around at least a couple of VC firms, although there are definitely a handful of partners who are looking at a very, very nice check in the mail compared to others.

So let’s dive in.

I’ve covered DoorDash’s and Airbnb’s investor returns in-depth, so if you want to know more about those individual returns, feel free to check those analyses out. But let’s take a more panoramic perspective of the returns of these five companies as a whole.
First, let’s take a look at the founders. These are among the very best startups ever built, and therefore, unsurprisingly, the founders all did pretty well for themselves. But there are pretty wide variations that are interesting to note.

First, Airbnb — by far — has the best return profile for its founders. Brian Chesky, Nathan Blecharczyk, and Joe Gebbia together own nearly 42% of their company at IPO, and that’s after raising billions in venture capital. The reason for their success is simple: Airbnb may have had some tough early innings when it was just getting started, but once it did, its valuation just skyrocketed. That helped to limit dilution in its earlier growth rounds, and ultimately protected their ownership in the company.

David Baszucki of Roblox and Peter Szulczewski of Wish both did well: they own 12% and about 19% of their companies, respectively. Szulczewski’s co-founder Sheng “Danny” Zhang, who is Wish’s CTO, owns 4.9%. Eric Cassel, the co-founder of Roblox, did not disclose ownership in the company’s S-1 filing, indicating that he doesn’t own greater than 5% (the SEC’s reporting threshold).

DoorDash’s founders own a bit less of their company, mostly owing to the money-gobbling nature of that business and the sheer number of co-founders of the company. CEO Tony Xu owns 5.2% while his two co-founders Andy Fang and Stanley Tang each have 4.7%. A fourth co-founder Evan Moore didn’t disclose his share totals in the company’s filing.

Finally, we have Affirm . Affirm didn’t provide total share counts for the company, so it’s hard right now to get a full ownership picture. It’s also particularly hard because Max Levchin, who founded Affirm, was a well-known, multi-time entrepreneur who had a unique shareholder structure from the beginning (many of the venture firms on the cap table actually have equal proportions of common and preferred shares). Levchin has more shares all together than any of his individual VC investors — 27.5 million shares, compared to the second largest investor, Jasmine Ventures (a unit of Singapore’s GIC) at 22 million shares.

African fintech startup Chipper Cash raises $30M backed by Jeff Bezos

By Jake Bright

African cross-border fintech startup Chipper Cash has raised a $30 million Series B funding round led by Ribbit Capital with participation of Bezos Expeditions — the personal VC fund of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Chipper Cash was founded in San Francisco in 2018 by Ugandan Ham Serunjogi and Ghanaian Maijid Moujaled. The company offers mobile-based, no fee, P2P payment services in seven countries: Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya.

Parallel to its P2P app, the startup also runs Chipper Checkout — a merchant-focused, fee-based payment product that generates the revenue to support Chipper Cash’s free mobile-money business. The company has scaled to 3 million users on its platform and processes an average of 80,000 transactions daily. In June 2020, Chipper Cash reached a monthly payments value of $100 million, according to CEO Ham Serunjogi .

As part of the Series B raise, the startup plans to expand its products and geographic scope. On the product side, that entails offering more business payment solutions, crypto-currency trading options, and investment services.

“We’ll always be a P2P financial transfer platform at our core. But we’ve had demand from our users to offer other value services…like purchasing cryptocurrency assets and making investments in stocks,” Serunjogi told TechCrunch on a call.

Image Credits: Chipper Cash

Chipper Cash has added beta dropdowns on its website and app to buy and sell Bitcoin and invest in U.S. stocks from Africa — the latter through a partnership with U.S. financial services company DriveWealth.

“We’ll launch [the stock product] in Nigeria first so Nigerians have the option to buy fractional stocks — Tesla shares, Apple shares or Amazon shares and others — through our app. We’ll expand into other countries thereafter,” said Serunjogi.

On the business financial services side, the startup plans to offer more API payments solutions. “We’ve been getting a lot of requests from people on our P2P platform, who also have business enterprises, to be able to collect payments for sale of goods,” explained Serunjogi.

Chipper Cash also plans to use its Series B financing for additional country expansion, which the company will announce by the end of 2021.

Jeff Bezos’s backing of Chipper Cash follows a recent string of events that has elevated the visibility of Africa’s startup scene. Over the past decade, the continent’s tech ecosystem has been one of the fastest growing in the world by year year-over-year expansion in venture capital and startup formation, concentrated in countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa.

Africa Top VC Markets 2019

Image Credits: TechCrunch/Bryce Durbin

Bringing Africa’s large unbanked population and underbanked consumers and SMEs online has factored prominently. Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

As such, fintech has become Africa’s highest-funded tech sector, receiving the bulk of an estimated $2 billion in VC that went to startups in 2019. Even with the rapid venture funding growth over the last decade, Africa’s tech scene had been performance light, with only one known unicorn (e-commerce venture Jumia) a handful of exits, and no major public share offerings. That changed last year.

In April 2019, Jumia — backed by investors including Goldman Sachs and Mastercard — went public in an NYSE IPO. Later in the year, Nigerian fintech company Interswitch achieved unicorn status after a $200 million investment by Visa.

This year, Network International purchased East African payments startup DPO for $288 million and in August WorldRemit acquired Africa focused remittance company Sendwave for $500 million.

One of the more significant liquidity events in African tech occurred last month, when Stripe acquired Nigerian payment gateway startup Paystack for a reported $200 million.

In an email to TechCrunch, a spokesperson for Bezos Expeditions confirmed the fund’s investment in Chipper Cash, but declined to comment on further plans to back African startups. Per Crunchbase data, the investment would be the first in Africa for the fund. It’s worth noting Bezos Expeditions is not connected to Jeff Bezo’s hallmark business venture, Amazon.

For Chipper Cash, the $30 million Series B raise caps an event-filled two years for the San Francisco-based payments company and founders Ham Serunjogi and Maijid Moujaled. The two came to America for academics, met in Iowa while studying at Grinnell College and ventured out to Silicon Valley for stints in big tech: Facebook for Serunjogi and Flickr and Yahoo! for Moujaled.

Chipper Cash founders Ham Serunjogi (R) and Maijid Moujaled; Image Credits: Chipper Cash

The startup call beckoned and after launching Chipper Cash in 2018, the duo convinced 500 Startups and Liquid 2 Ventures — co-founded by American football legend Joe Montana — to back their company with seed funds. The startup expanded into Nigeria and Southern Africa in 2019, entered a payments partnership with Visa in April and raised a $13.8 million Series A in June.

Chipper Cash founder Ham Serunjogi believes the backing of his company by a notable tech figure, such as Jeff Bezos (the world’s richest person), has benefits beyond his venture.

“It’s a big deal when a world class investor like Bezos or Ribbit goes out of their sweet spot to a new area where they previously haven’t done investments,” he said. “Ultimately, the winner of those things happening is the African tech ecosystem overall, as it will bring more investment from firms of that caliber to African startups.”

Google Pay gets a major redesign with a new emphasis on personal finance

By Frederic Lardinois

Google is launching a major redesign of its Google Pay app on both Android and iOS today. Like similar phone-based contactless payment services, Google Pay — or Android Pay as it was known then — started out as a basic replacement for your credit card. Over time, the company added a few more features on top of that but the overall focus never really changed. After about five years in the market, Google Pay now has about 150 million users in 30 countries. With today’s update and redesign, Google is keeping all the core features intact but also taking the service in a new direction with a strong emphasis on helping you manage your personal finances (and maybe get a deal here and there as well).

Google is also partnering with 11 banks to launch a new kind of bank account in 2021. Called Plex, these mobile-first bank accounts will have no monthly fees, overdraft charges or minimum balances. The banks will own the accounts but the Google Pay app will be the main conduit for managing these accounts. The launch partners for this are Citi and Stanford Federal Credit Union.

Image Credits: Google

“What we’re doing in this new Google Pay app, think of it is combining three things into one,” Google director of product management Josh Woodward said as he walked me through a demo of the new app. “The three things are three tabs in the app. One is the ability to pay friends and businesses really fast. The second is to explore offers and rewards, so you can save money at shops. And the third is getting insights about your spending so you can stay on top of your money.”

Paying friends and businesses was obviously always at the core of Google Pay — but the emphasis here has shifted a bit. “You’ll notice that everything in the product is built around your relationships,” Caesar Sengupta, Google’s lead for Payments and Next Billion Users, told me. “It’s not about long lists of transactions or weird numbers. All your engagements pivot around people, groups, and businesses.”

It’s maybe no surprise then that the feature that’s now front and center in the app is P2P payments. You can also still pay and request money through the app as usual, but as part of this overhaul, Google is now making it easier to split restaurant bills with friends, for example, or your rent and utilities with your roommates — and to see who already paid and who is still delinquent. Woodward tells me that Google built this feature after its user research showed that splitting bills remains a major pain point for its users.

In this same view, you can also find a list of companies you have recently transacted with — either by using the Google Pay tap-and-pay feature or because you’ve linked your credit card or bank account with the service. From there, you can see all of your recent transactions with those companies.

Image Credits: Google

Maybe the most important new feature Google is enabling with this update is indeed the ability to connect your bank accounts and credit cards to Google Pay so that it can pull in information about your spending. It’s basically Mint-light inside the Google Pay app. This is what enables the company to offer a lot of the other new features in the app. Google says it is working with “a few different aggregators” to enable this feature, though it didn’t go into details about who its partners are. It’s worth stressing that this, like all of the new features here, is off by default and opt-in.

Image Credits: Google

The basic idea here is similar to that of other personal finance aggregators. At its most basic, it lets you see how much money you spent and how much you still have. But Google is also using its smarts to show you some interesting insights into your spending habits. On Monday, it’ll show you how much you spent on the weekend, for example.

“Think of these almost as like stories in a way,” Woodward said. “You can swipe through them so you can see your large transactions. You can see how much you spent this week compared to a typical week. You can look at how much money you’ve sent to friends and which friends and where you’ve spent money in the month of November, for example.”

This also then enables you to easily search for a given transaction using Google’s search capabilities. Since this is Google, that search should work pretty well and in a demo, the team showed me how a search for ‘Turkish’ brought up a transaction at a kebab restaurant, for example, even though it didn’t have ‘Turkish’ in its name. If you regularly take photos of your receipts, you can also now search through these from Google Pay and drill down to specific things you bought — as well as receipts and bills you receive in your Gmail inbox.

Also new inside of Google Pay is the ability to see and virtually clip coupons that are then linked to your credit card, so you don’t need to do anything else beyond using that linked credit card to get extra cashback on a given transaction, for example. If you opt in, these offers can also be personalized.

Image Credits: Google

The team also worked with the Google Lens team to now let you scan products and QR codes to look for potential discounts.

As for the core payments function, Google is also enabling a new capability that will let you use contactless payments at 30,000 gas stations now (often with a discount). The partners for this are Shell, ExxonMobil, Phillips 66, 76 and Conoco.

In addition, you’ll also soon be able to pay for parking in over 400 cities inside the app. Not every city is Portland, after all, and has a Parking Kitty. The first cities to get this feature are Austin, Boston, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C., with others to follow soon.

It’s one thing to let Google handle your credit card transaction but it’s another to give it all of this — often highly personal — data. As the team emphasized throughout my conversation with them, Google Pay will not sell your data to third parties or even the rest of Google for ad targeting, for example. All of the personalized features are also off by default and the team is doing something new here by letting you turn them on for a three-month trial period. After those three months, you can then decide to keep them on or off.

In the end, whether you want to use the optional features and have Google store all of this data is probably a personal choice and not everybody will be comfortable with it. The rest of the core Google Pay features aren’t changing, after all, so you can still make your NFC payments at the supermarket with your phone just like before.

Bella is a new challenger bank with a text-based interface

By Romain Dillet

Meet Bella, a new challenger bank launching on November 30th. The company is trying to differentiate itself with two distinctive features. First, you can interact with the app using keywords and text commands. Second, Bella is trying to build a community that helps each other to differentiate its product from soulless monolithic banking services.

Let’s start with the basics. When you open a Bella account, you receive a rainbow debit card that works on the Visa network. You get a checking account as well as the ability to create savings accounts. Behind the sene, Bella works with nbkc bank for the banking infrastructure. Accounts are FDIC insured up to $5 million.

Your card works with Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay. There are no foreign transaction fees and Bella reimburses all ATM fees. There are no account minimums and service fees either.

Image Credits: Bella

But the app doesn’t look like your average banking app. There’s a text field at the bottom of the screen at all times. If you tap that field and enter a keyword, you can do all the interactions you’d expect to do. That feature is called Socratex.

This isn’t a chatbot, it’s more like a command line interface. For instance, if you type “Send”, it’ll suggest “Send money”. You can then enter an amount and hit next. After that, you can type the name of a contact, or add a contact, and then hit send.

You don’t have to find the right menu and hit the right button. The app tries to guide you so that you can construct a full sentence describing your intent. Bella uses LivePerson for that text-based interface. LivePerson is also Bella’s strategic backer.

Image Credits: Bella

And then, there is the Karma account. Over a hundred years ago in Naples, people started ordering two espressos and drinking just one. The second one would be a caffè sospeso. A poor person could ask for a caffè sospeso later that day and get a free coffee.

Bella is basically doing the same thing with its Karma account. Users can deposit up to $20 into a personal Karma account. Another user could use its Bella card and get a notification saying that their purchase is covered by someone else’s Karma account.

Similarly, Bella is introducing a randomized cashback program. The company randomly picks purchases and sends you back 5 to 200% in cashback.

When it comes to savings accounts, you can open as many savings accounts as you want and set some unconventional rules. For instance, you can set up a rule that puts some money aside when it’s sunny, when your sports team is winning, etc.

As you can see, Bella wants to introduce some randomized events so that you get surprised by your own bank account. The company wants to give back $1 million in cashback over the first four weeks on the market. Let’s see if that could turn the financial service into a viral experience.

Payments app True Balance raises $28 million to reach more underbanked users in India

By Manish Singh

True Balance, a South Korean startup which runs an eponymous financial services app aimed at tens of millions of users in small cities and towns in India, said on Wednesday it has raised $28 million in a new financing round and expects to turn a profit by next year.

SoftBank Ventures Asia, Naver, BonAngels, Daesung Private Equity, and Shinhan Capital financed the five-year-old startup’s Series D financing round. The startup, which has headquarters in Seoul and Gurugram, has raised about $90 million to date.

True Balance began its life as an app to help users easily find their mobile balance, or top up pre-pay mobile credit. But in its five-year journey, the startup has added a range of financial services including online lending and ability to pay utility bills. Online lending is its core business today.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Charlie Lee, founder and chief executive of True Balance, said the startup has disbursed over $13.5 million in small loans to consumers. The size of these loans vary from $6.75 to $675, he said.

Its customers don’t have a credit score, which makes it complicated for them to get a loan from financial institutions such as banks. Lee explained that True Balance, which formerly operated as Balancehero India, looks at alternative data to determine a user’s credit worthiness.

Hundreds of millions of Indian today don’t have a credit score, and without this, they can’t avail a range of services from banks. Scores of startups in India and Southeast Asia are experimenting with alternative data such as a phone a consumer has and the transactions she makes and hundreds of other data points to determine these people’s credit worthiness.

Lee did not reveal how many of the consumers it has lent money to have returned the amount, but said the figure was so high that the startup is open to engaging with other firms who are looking to make use of alternative data but don’t have the tech stack.

The startup told TechCrunch last year that it was nearing profitability — a milestone it now hopes to reach in the second quarter of next year. Lee said the coronavirus, which has severely impacted the financial services sector, also hurt True Balance’s business.

Payments business in India remains a category that has yet to fully recover from the coronavirus pandemic and the sector at large won’t be profitable for at least another three years, analysts at Goldman Sachs wrote in a report they sent to clients earlier this month.

“Before the coronavirus, our business was growing very fast,” said Lee. “The coronavirus and moratorium (enforced by the nation’s central bank) hit us. We utilized this time to improve our collection process and other aspects of the business.”

In the last three months, True Balance has started to grow again, Lee said, claiming a 300% surge. The startup continues to run a range of other services including the ability to book train tickets and e-commerce and is also working on insurance.

“We will continue focusing on non-online payment users, non-credit score users, people who deserve our help, but need a way to get to it,” he said.

More to follow…

Masayoshi Son says SoftBank now has ‘$80 billion in cash on hand’ just in case

By Connie Loizos

Masayoshi Son, the founder and CEO of the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, has had a topsy turvy year or two, but the story he is eager to tell is that he is back and in the black.

Such was the overarching message delivered at a virtual Dealbook conference earlier today, with Son joining from Tokyo and sounding sanguine about a wide range of issues, from TikTok’s future (SoftBank is an investor in its parent company, Bytedance); to the future of ousted WeWork cofounder Adam Neumann, a company on which SoftBank has lost billions of dollars (“I’m a big believer that someday he will be very successful”); to SoftBank’s ability to shop opportunistically, thanks to a massive asset sell-off that Son says has provided SoftBank with “$80 billion in cash on hand.”

In case you missed the chat, we’re bringing you some highlights, starting with the one thing that is causing the “optimistic” Son to feel “pessimistic in the short-term.”

On COVID-19:

Son says that in March, he was accused by local medical professionals of trying to cause a panic after tweeting about his concern over the coronavirus.

SoftBank has since begun operating the largest private testing facility in Japan, a country of 126.5 million that is currently seeing roughly 1,300 new cases each day (compared to the U.S., home to 328 million people and currently seeing more than 166,000 new cases each day).

Son credits Japanese citizens with the country’s success to date in battling back the pandemic, saying they “all wear a mask by themselves . . .they are very conscious about this.” But he said that “any disaster” could happen “in the next two to three months” before the mass production and distribution of a vaccine.  A “major company could collapse” causing a domino effect, not unlike what happened when Lehman Brothers was abruptly forced to file bankruptcy in 2008, shaking up the entire banking industry.

“Anything can happen in this kind of situation,” said Son, adding, “I think it’s getting better with this news of the vaccines’ success. But I still want to be prepared for the worst-case scenario, so that’s why today we have almost $80 billion cash in hand ourselves.” Son went on to say that SoftBank has “enough funding,” but that “I thought cash is very important in this kind of crisis.”

On that massive cash pile:

Interviewer Andrew Ross Sorkin did not ask, and Son did not remark, about Elliott Management, the hedge-fund firm believed to be the second biggest shareholder of SoftBank and which reportedly pressured Son to sell off assets and buy back some of the company’s own shares, whose price had fallen precipitously earlier this year.

In the meantime, Son suggested that it was his own decision to snatch up depressed SoftBank shares, saying that when in March, its stock had sunk almost 70% in value, “I said, ‘Oh my god, this is the best time for me to buy back shares, when our discount to the our underlying asset went over 70%, like 75%.’ So I could buy our own company for one-fourth the price of underlying assets. I said, ‘Oh my god, I should buy, I should buy it.'”

Son did answer whether part of that asset sale was also driven by an interest in plugging more money into SoftBank’s existing portfolio companies — some of which have suffered during the pandemic — or whether he anticipates being able to swoop in and buy up other, new assets.

Unsurprisingly, Son said that “If we can invest in these front end companies, if we can invest more into those opportunities, I will be aggressive,” noting that pricing for so-called unicorns that need funding has improved.

On the WeWork debacle and lessons learned:

Speaking of unicorns, Sorkin brought up WeWork, the coworking company into which SoftBank somewhat famously jammed at least $18.5 billion — “billions” of which it subsequently lost, acknowledged Son.

Sorkin asked what lessons were learned from SoftBank’s involvement with the company, but Son, who later said in the interview that he is someone who accepts his bad decisions so he can learn from them, didn’t exactly acknowledge a failing on SoftBank’s part, pointing the finger instead at cofounder and former CEO Adam Neumann, who was elbowed out the door of the company roughly a year ago.

Said Son: “I think this is a lesson that Adam Neumann himself is telling himself he made a mistake. He’s a smart guy. I think he admits he made a few mistakes. I think that he’s a smart guy, he’s an aggressive guy, he has lots of capability, he can convince people, he’s a great leader. But he made some mistakes. Any human makes some mistakes.”

The furthest Son went was to say that, “I’m part of the responsibility of his mistake,” before continuing on regarding Neumann, saying: “So, I still love him. I still respect him. I’m sure he would come back and do some great stuff in his rest of the world and his life. So I’m a big believer that someday he will be very successful. And he would he would say he has learned a lot from his prior life.”

On the Trump administration’s efforts to ban TikTok in the U.S.:

Son also has a vested interest in TikTok’s success. It was roughly two years ago that it led a $3 billion round in TikTok’s parent company, Bytedance, which was valued at $78 billion at the time and which is currently raising a new round from investors that would value the still-private company at a whopping $180 billion, according to recent reports. (It’s very much a SoftBank-style deal in this regard, and it will be interesting to see if SoftBank is leading this next round at more than twice the company’s previous valuation.)

As for the pressure that Bytedance came under this fall to sell its TikTok’s U.S. operations, with Oracle and Walmart both involved in the bid, Son called it a “sad thing” if a service that “people enjoy a lot gets discontinued because of some political concerns [over] something that is actually not happening.”

Indeed, Son insisted that, based on his discussions with the company’s top brass, Bytedance has no interest in compromising the privacy of its users or the national security of the countries in which TikTok operates, be it the U.S., India, Japan, or European countries.

He added that for those regions with lingering concerns, there is “always a solution, like putting servers in each country where the politicians may feel much more comfortable about protecting security national security . . .there is always a technical solution.”

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