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What we know (and don’t) about Goldman Sachs’ Africa VC investing

By Jake Bright

Goldman Sachs is investing in African tech companies. The venerable American investment bank and financial services firm has backed startups from Kenya to Nigeria and taken a significant stake in e-commerce venture Jumia, which listed on the NYSE in 2019.

Though Goldman declined to comment on its Africa VC activities for this article, the company has spoken to TechCrunch in the past about specific investments.

Goldman Sachs is one of the most enviable investment banking shops on Wall Street, generating $36 billion in net revenues in 2019, or roughly $1 million per employee. It’s the firm that always seems to come out on top, making money during the financial crisis while its competitors were hemorrhaging. For generations, MBAs from the world’s top business schools have clamored to work there, helping make it a professional incubator of sorts that has spun off alums into leadership positions in politics, VC and industry.

All that cache is why Goldman’s name popping up related to African tech got people’s attention, including mine, several years ago.

Felix Capital closes $300M fund to double down on DTC, break into fintech and make late-stage deals

By Ingrid Lunden

To kick off 2020, one of Europe’s newer — and more successful — investment firms has closed a fresh, oversubscribed fund, one sign that VC in the region will continue to run strong in the year ahead after startups across Europe raised between $35 billion and $36 billion in 2019.

Felix Capital, the London VC founded by Frederic Court that was one of the earlier firms to identify and invest in the trend of direct-to-consumer businesses, has raised $300 million, money that it plans to use to continue investing in creative and consumer startups and platform plays as well as begin to tap into a newer area, fintech — specifically startups that are focused on consumer finance. 

Felix up to now has focused mostly on earlier-stage investments — it now has $600 million under management and 32 companies in its portfolio in eight countries — based across both Europe and the US. Court said in an interview that a portion of this fund will now also go into later, growth rounds, both for companies that Felix has been backing for some time as well as newer faces.

As with the focus of the investments, the make-up of the fund itself has a strong European current: the majority of the LPs are European, Court noted. Although Asia is something it would like to tackle more in the future both as a market for its current portfolio and as an investment opportunity, he added, the firm has yet to invest into the region or substantially raise money from it.

Felix made its debut in 2015, founded by Court after a strong run at Advent Capital where he was involved in a number of big exits. While Court had been a strong player in enterprise software, Felix was a step-change for him into more of a primary focus on consumer startups focused on fashion, lifestyle and creative pursuits.

That has over the years included investing in companies like the breakout high-fashion marketplace Farfetch (which he started to back when still at Advent and is now public), Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP, the jewellery startup Mejuri, trend-watching HighSnobiety, and fitness startup Peloton (which has also IPO’d).

It’s not an altogether easygoing, vanilla list of cool stuff. Peloton and GOOP have had been mightily doused in snarky and sharky sentiments; and sometimes it even seems as if the brands themselves own and cultivate that image. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad press, I guess.

Although it wasn’t something especially articulated in startup land at the time of Felix’s launch, what the firm was honing in on was a rising category of direct-to-consumer startups, essentially all in the area of e-commerce and building brands and businesses that were bypassing traditional retailers and retail channels to develop primary relationships with consumers through newer digital channels such as social media, messaging and email (alongside their own DTC websites). 

This is not Felix’s sole focus, with investments into a range of platform businesses like corporate travel site TravelPerk, Amazon -backed food delivery juggernaut Deliveroo and Moonbug (a platform for children’s entertainment content); and increasingly later stage rounds (for example it was part of a $104 million round at TravelPerk; a $70 million round for marketplace-building service Mirakl; and $23 million for Mejuri.

Court’s track record prior to Felix, and the success of the current firm to date, are two likely reasons why this latest fund was oversubscribed, and why Court says it wants to further spread its wings into a wider range of areas and investment stages.

The interest in consumer finance is not such a large step away from these areas, when you consider that they are just the other side of the coin from e-commerce: saving money versus spending money.

“We see this as our prism of opportunity,” said Court. “Just as we had the intuition that there was a space for investors looking at [DTC]… we now think there is enough evidence that there is demand from consumers for new ways of dealing with money and personal finance.”

The firm has from the start operated with a board of advisors who also invest money through Felix while also holding down day jobs.

They include the likes of executives from eBay, Facebook, and more. David Marcus –who Court backed when he built payments company Zong and eventually sold it to eBay before he went on to become a major mover and shaker at Facebook and is now has the possibly Sisyphean task of building Calibra — is on the list, but that has not translated into Felix dabbling in cryptocurrency.

“We are watching cryptocurrency, but if you take a Felix stance on the area, it’s only had one amazing brand so far, bitcoin,” said Court. “The rest, for a consumer, is very difficult to understand and access. It’s still really early, but I’ve got no doubt that there will be some things emerging, particularly around the idea of ‘invisible money.'”

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

By Jake Bright

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

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

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

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

IPOs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China-Africa goes digital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nigeria and fintech

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acquisitions

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

CChub ihub Acquisition

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

CcHub CEO Bosun Tijani1

CcHub/iHub CEO Bosun Tijani

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

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

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

Moto ride-hail mania

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

Ampersand Africa e motorcycle

Ampersand in Rwanda

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

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

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

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

New funds

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

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

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

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

Closed up shop

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

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

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

Africa’s startups go global

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

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

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

2020 and beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

More notable 2019 Africa-related coverage @TechCrunch

Why D2C holding companies are here to stay

By Walter Thompson
Alex Song Contributor
Alex is CEO and co-Founder of Innovation Department, a tech-empowered platform building the next generation of consumer brands. Previously, he worked at Goldman Sachs and Pershing Square Capital Management.

It wasn’t that long ago that digitally-native, vertically-integrated brands (DNVBs) were the talk of the startup world.

Venture capitalists and founders watched as Warby Parker, Casper, Glossier, Harry’s and Honest Company became the belles of the D2C ball, trotting their way towards unicorn valuations. Not long after, the “startup studio” was unmasked as the elusive unicorn breeding grounds (think Hims). Today, there’s yet another buzzword that’s all the rage and it goes by the name “D2C Holding Company.” And it’s not going away anytime soon.

What are DNVBs?

In 2017, DNVBs were a game-changer. Different than e-commerce, DNVBs sell products online directly to consumers and maintain control and transparency through each stage of the production and distribution process, all without the involvement of middlemen. This allows DNVBs to determine where and how their products are sold and to collect customer data that helps optimize their marketing strategies. 

DNVBs have exploded over the last decade, growing sales and venture capital funding at a rapid pace. These brands use digital engagement strategies to create stronger relationships with consumers, which — when implemented alongside captivating content — contribute heavily to brand success by increasing customer LTV and creating compounding unit economics.

The problem with DNVBs

In the last three years alone, more DNVBs have launched than in the entirety of the previous decade.

While this growth is encouraging, the problem is that these DNVBs are raising so much venture capital that in order to meet the return requirements of their investors, they need a significant purchase offer or IPO valuation. With more than 85 percent of acquisitions happening below $250 million in purchase price, strategic acquisitions offers that meet investor expectations are few and far between.

This ultimately creates a state of startup purgatory where DNVBs have no choice but to take a downround to find a lifeline — sorry, Honest Company — making it difficult to develop disciplined operational habits and achieve sustainable growth. With these challenges becoming more glaringly apparent in recent years, there came a need for a new approach to D2C at large. Enter the modern D2C holding company.

Make way for the D2C holding company model

Today’s version of the holding company model takes what companies like Procter & Gamble and Unilever did in the 1950s and modernizes it for the existing D2C market. Instead of taking a siloed approach, brands pool resources, operational costs and institutional knowledge to accelerate growth and achieve profitability at a faster rate. 

DNVB darlings Harry’s and Glossier are great examples of this. Harry’s diversification efforts have been centerstage as the company works to grow beyond men’s grooming to include personal care for men and women, household items and baby products. In May, Edgewell Personal Care, which owns brands like Schick, Banana Boat, and Wet Ones, acquired Harry’s for $1.37 billion. Glossier is also working to diversify its portfolio, with the launch of Glossier Play, a younger, more colorful sister brand to its original.

For DNVBs to successfully pivot to a holding company model, they will need to prioritize 1) diversification to satisfy customers’ short attention spans, 2) a data-first mindset to deliver the best possible customer experience, and 3) operational and capital efficiency to not only stay afloat, but thrive. 

An evolving landscape

The landscape for D2C holding companies is just starting to take shape, but here are some of the key players who have adopted this approach and are finding early success:

Walmart partners with self-driving startup Nuro to test autonomous grocery delivery in Houston

By Sarah Perez

Walmart this morning announced a new pilot program that will test autonomous grocery delivery in the Houston market starting next year. The retailer is partnering with autonomous vehicle company Nuro, a robotics company that uses driverless technology to deliver goods to customers. Nuro’s vehicles in this case will delivery Walmart online grocery orders to a select group of customers who opt into the service in Houston.

The autonomous delivery service will involve R2, Nuro’s custom-built delivery vehicle that carries products only with no onboard drivers or passengers, as well as autonomous Toyota Priuses that deliver groceries.

The program’s goal is to learn more about how autonomous grocery delivery could work and how such a service can be improved to better serve Walmart’s shoppers.

Nuro’s focus to date has been developing a self-driving stack and combining it with a custom unmanned vehicle designed for last-mile delivery of local goods and services. The vehicle has two compartments that can fit up to six grocery bags each.

The company has raised more than $1 billion from partners, including SoftBank, Greylock Partners and Gaorong Capital. In March, the company announced it had raised $940 million in financing from Softbank Vision Fund.

Nuro is known for its pursuit of autonomous delivery. But it also licensed its self-driving vehicle technology to Ike, the autonomous trucking startup. Ike now has a copy of Nuro’s stack, which is worth billions, based on this latest round. Nuro also has a minority stake in Ike.

Nuro’s partnership with Walmart is hardly its first. The company partnered in 2018 with Kroger to pilot a delivery service in Arizona. The pilot, which initially used Toyota Prius vehicles, transitioned in December to the delivery bot. The autonomous vehicle called R1 is operating as a driverless service without a safety driver on board in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale.

The Nuro partnership isn’t Walmart’s first autonomous delivery pilot, either. The retailer earlier this year tapped the startup Udelv to test autonomous grocery deliveries in Arizona. This summer, it kicked off a test with Gatik A.I., an autonomous vehicle startup to test grocery delivery from Walmart’s main warehouse in Bentonville, Arkansas. Walmart also launched a pilot with self-driving company Waymo in 2018 to test rides to Walmart for grocery pickup, as well as a test with Ford and Postmates for autonomous grocery delivery.

“Our unparalleled size and scale has allowed us to steer grocery delivery to the front doors of millions of families – and design a roadmap for the future of the industry,” said Tom Ward, Walmart’s SVP of digital operations, in a statement. “Along the way, we’ve been test driving a number of different options for getting groceries from our stores to our customers’ front doors through self-driving technology. We believe this technology is a natural extension of our Grocery Pickup and Delivery service, and our goal of making every day a little easier for customers,” he aded.

Walmart’s Online Grocery business is booming, but today still relies on partnerships with third-party delivery services. Currently, Walmart partners with delivery providers across the U.S. to facilitate deliveries, including Point Pickup, Skipcart, AxleHire, Roadie, Postmates, and DoorDash. It has also tried, then ended, relationships with DelivUber and Lyft in the past. By the end of 2019, Walmart Grocery will offer nearly 3,100 pickup locations and 1,600 stores that support grocery delivery.

The retailer’s investments in its online grocery business helped boost sales and benefitted consumers by offering an affordable competitor to Amazon, Target’s Shipt, Instacart, and others. In Q3, Walmart’s grocery business helped online sales grow 41%, ahead of the 35% gain expected, leading Walmart to another earnings beat and 21 quarters of growth in the U.S.

In the quarter, Walmart earnings rose to $1.16 a share on revenue of $127.99 billion. However, Walmart’s e-commerce business is losing money as it continues to invest in new technologies and acquisitions, which has led to internal tensions.

Walmart says its pilot program will Nuro will kick off in 2020.

China Roundup: Y Combinator’s short-lived China dream

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 looked at how Alibaba and Tencent fared in the last quarter; the talk in Silicon Valley and Beijing this week is on Y Combinator’s sudden retreat from China. We will also discuss the enduring food delivery war in the country later.

Brief adventure in the East

The storied Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator announced the closure of its China unit just a little over a year after it entered the country. In a vague statement posted on its official blog, the organization said the decision came amid a change in leadership. Sam Altman, its former president who hired legendary artificial intelligence scientist Lu Qi to initiate the China operation, recently left his high-profile role to join research outfit OpenAI. With that, YC has since refocused its energy to support “local and international startups from our headquarters in Silicon Valley.”

What was untold is the insurmountable challenge that multinationals face in their attempt to win in a wildly different market. Lu Qi, who wore management hats at Baidu and Microsoft before joining YC, was clearly aware of the obstacles when he said in an interview (in Chinese) in May that “multinational corporations in China have almost been wiped out. They almost never successfully land in China.” The prescription, he believes, is to build a local team that’s given full autonomy to make decisions around products, operations, and the business.

A former executive at an American company’s China branch, who asked to remain anonymous, argued that Lu Qi’s one-man effort can’t be enough to beat the curse of multinationals’ path in China. “All I can say is: Lu has taken a detour. Going independent is the best decision. When it comes to whether Chinese startups are suited for mentorship, or whether incubators bring value to China, these are separate questions.”

What’s curious is that YC China seemed to have been given a meaningful level of freedom before the split. “Thanks to Sam Altman and the U.S. team, who agreed with my view and supported with much preparation, YC China is not only able to enjoy key resources from YC U.S. but can also operate at a completely independent capacity,” Lu said in the May interview.

Moving on, the old YC China team will join Lu Qi to fund new companies under a newly minted program, MiraclePlus, announced YC China via a Wechat post (in Chinese). The initiative has set up its own fund, team, entity and operational team. The deep ties that Lu has fostered with YC will continue to benefit his new portfolio, which will receive “support” from the YC headquarters, though neither party elaborated on what that means.

Alibaba’s food delivery nemesis

The food delivery war in China is still dragging on two years after the major consolidation that left the market with two major players. Meituan, the local services company backed by Tencent, has managed to attain an expanding share against Alibaba-owned Ele.me. According to third-party data (in Chinese) provided by Trustdata, Meituan accounted for 65.1% of China’s overall food delivery orders during the second quarter, steadily rising from just under 60% a year ago. Ele.me, on the other hand, has lost nearly 10% of the market, slumping to 27.4% from 36% a year ago.

In terms of monetization, Meituan generated 15.6 billion yuan ($2.2 billion) in revenue from its food delivery segment in the quarter ended September 30. That dwarfs Ele.me, which racked up 6.8 billion yuan ($970 million) during the same period. Both are growing north of 30% year-over-year.

meituan dianping

Source: Meituan

This may not be all that surprising given Alibaba has arguably more imminent battles to fight. The e-commerce leader has been consumed by the rise of Pinduoduo, which has launched an assault on China’s low-tier cities with its ultra-cheap products and social-driven online shopping experience. Meituan, on the other hand, is fixated on beefing up its main turf of on-demand neighborhood services after divesting its costly bike-sharing endeavor. 

When both contestants have the capital to burn through — as they have demonstrated through heavily subsidizing customers and restaurants — the race comes down to which has greater control of user traffic. Meituan holds a competitive edge thanks to its merger with Dianping, a leading restaurant review app akin to Yelp, back in 2015. Dianping today operates as a standalone brand but its food app is deeply integrated with Meituan’s delivery services. For example, hundreds of millions of users are able to place Meituan-powered food delivery orders straight from Dianping.

Alibaba and Meituan used to be on more friendly terms just a few years ago. In 2011, the e-commerce giant participated in Meituan’s $50 million Series B financing. Before long, the two clashed over control of the company. Alibaba is known to impose a heavy hand on its portfolio companies by taking up majority stakes and reshuffling the company with new executives. That’s because Alibaba believes that “only when you operate can you generate synergies and really create exponential value,” said vice chairman Joe Tsai in an interview. Whereas if you just make a financial investment, you’re counting an internal rate of return. You’re not creating real value.”

Ele.me lived through that transformation. As of September, Alibaba has reportedly (in Chinese) completed replacing Ele.me’s management with its pool of appointed personnel. Ele.me’s founder Zhang Xuhao left the company with billions of yuan in cash and joined a venture capital firm (in Chinese).

Meituan’s founder Wang Xing had more unfettered pursuits. In a later financing round, he refused to accept Alibaba’s condition for portfolio companies to eschew Tencent investments, a strategy of the giant to hobble its archrival. That botched the partnership and Alibaba has since been gradually offloading its Meituan shares but still held onto small amounts, according to Wang in 2017, “to create trouble” for Meituan going forward.

Equity Dive: Poshmark’s origin story with co-founder & CEO Manish Chandra

By Kate Clark

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

We have something a bit different for you this week. Equity co-host Kate Clark recently sat down with Manish Chandra, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Poshmark, and one of his earliest investors, NFX managing partner James Currier.

If you haven’t heard of Poshmark, it’s an online platform for buying and selling clothes. Basically, it’s the thrift shop of the 21st century. We asked Chandra how he and co-founders Tracy Sun, Gautam Golwala and Chetan Pungaliya cooked up the idea for Poshmark, what bumps they faced along the way, how they raised venture capital and, of course, what details of their upcoming initial public offering he could share with us. Meanwhile, Currier dished about the company’s early days, when the Poshmark team worked hard on the floor of Currier’s office.

Unfortunately, neither Chandra or Currier were willing to share deets about Poshmark’s IPO, reportedly expected soon. But they both shared interesting insights into building a successful venture-backed company, battling competition and putting your best foot forward.

Glad you guys came back for another episode, we’ll see you soon.

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

Samasource raises $14.8M for global AI data biz driven from Africa

By Jake Bright

AI training data provider Samasource has raised a $14.8 million Series A funding round led by Ridge Ventures.

The San Francisco headquartered company delivers Fortune 100 companies with the inputs they need for machine learning development in fields including autonomous transportation, e-commerce and communications and media.

And it does so with a global work-force of data-specialists, a large number of whom are located in East Africa.

In addition to San Francisco, New York and the Hague, Samasource has offices and teams in Kenya and Uganda. The company has a global staff of 2900 and is the largest AI and data annotation employer in East Africa, according to CEO and founder Leila Janah.

As part of its Series A, Samasource plans to upgrade the features of its platform. It also opened an AI Development Center in Montreal, Canada and expanded its digital delivery center in Kampala, Uganda to serve its corporate client-base.

“Typically we’re working with very large companies for whom AI is a key part of their business strategy. So therefore they have to be really careful about…bias in the algorithms or bad data,” Janah explained on a call with TechCrunch.

Samasource works through a discovery phase with customers — to determine the problems their trying to solve and their sources of input data — and customizes an approach to providing what they need.

“In some cases we might refine elements of our software…then we go into deployment and…annotation work,” said Janah, referring to the company’s SamaHub training data platform.

Samasource clients include Google, Continental, Walmart, and Ford. The company generates revenue primarily through its machine learning data annotation and validation services.

Samasource was originally founded by Janah as a non-profit in 2008. “I saw huge opportunity for tapping into the incredible depth of…talent in East Africa in the tech world,” she said of the firm’s origins.

Samasource converted to for-profit status in 2019, making the previous non-profit organization a shareholder.

“As a CEO I need to make it clear to investors that this is an investible entity,” Jana said of the reason for Samasource becoming a private company.

Ridge Ventures Principal Ben Metcalfe confirmed the fund’s lead on the $14.8 million Series A round and that he will take a board seat with Samasource. Other investors included, Social Impact Ventures, Bestseller Foundation, and Bluecrest Limited Capital.

Samasource’s founder thinks that providing for-profit AI training data to global companies can be done while improving lives in East Africa.

“I strongly believe you can combine the highest quality of service with the core mission of altruism,” she said.

“A big part of our values is offering living wages and creating dignified technology work for people. We hire people from low-income backgrounds and offer them training in AI and machine learning. And our teams achieve above the industry standard.”

It’s not unusual for Samasource to hear comparisons to Andela, the well-funded tech talent accelerator that trains and connects African developers to global companies.

“We are very different in that our whole model is about delivering high-quality training data. I would call Samasource an AI company and Andela a software training company,” she said.

Janah does see some parallels, however, in both companies’ recognizing and building tech-talent in Africa, along with a number of blue-chip entrants.

“I think it’s telling that Facebook, IBM and Google have all opened tech hubs in Africa, some of them AI or machine-learning focused,” she said.

Some Samasource professionals are also taking their skills on to other endeavors in Africa’s innovation ecosystem.

“A lot of our alums go on to do entrepreneurial things [and] start businesses and I think you’re going to see a lot more of that as we grow,” said Janah.

For now she will be the one hiring and training new tech workers in East Africa.

As part of its Series A, Samasource increased staff in Kampala to 90 people and plans to grow that by 150% in 2020, its CEO said.

Cybersecurity startup CyCognito raises $18M in Series A funding

By Zack Whittaker

CyCognito, a cybersecurity platform that aims to give visibility into a company’s security weak spots, has raised $18 million in its Series A round of funding.

Lightspeed Partners led the fundraise, which included a personal investment from Lightspeed venture partner and former Microsoft chairperson John Thompson, and additional participation from Sorenson Ventures.

CyCognito says its software-as-a-service platform can “autonomously discover, enumerate, and prioritize each organization’s security risks based upon a global analysis of all external attack surfaces.” In other words, it measures a company’s entire attack surface, looking for holes and flaws, which could be exploited by malicious actors. It does this by maintaining tens of thousands of bots which spiders out across the internet, looking for internet-connected and exposed devices. With that database of digital assets, the company looks for issues that could be used for attacks.

The startup says its platform already in use by “dozens” of corporate customers, across healthcare, hospitality and financial verticals.

Now with $18 million in the bank, CyCognito says it plans to expand its engineering and sales teams to reach more enterprise clients.

Two years since the company’s founding, its leadership page consisted of only men.

Chief executive Rob Gurzeev said the company was “actively seeking to hire more women and non-binary persons into senior roles” and “actively encourages growth of diversity in its workforce.”

After TechCrunch raised lack of diversity with CyCognito, the company quickly changed its leadership page to include one woman.

Updated to correct the funding amount. 

Elavon to acquire Sage Pay, a gateway that competes with Stripe, PayPal and Adyen, for $300M

By Ingrid Lunden

E-commerce continues to gain momentum — a trend we’ll see played out in the next two months of holiday shopping — and with that comes more consolidation. Today, Elavon, the payments company that is a subsidiary of US Bancorp, announced that it will acquire Sage Pay, one of the bigger payment processors in the UK and Ireland serving small and medium businesses.

Sage Pay’s owner Sage Group said the deal is being done for £232 million in cash (or $300 million at today’s currency rates).

Elavon is active in 10 countries and says it’s the fourth-largest merchant acquirer in Europe, competing against the likes of  Global Payments, Vantiv, FIS, Ingenico, Verifone, Stripe, Chase, MasterCard and Visa. The deal is still subject to regulatory approval (both by the Federal Reserve in the US and the Central Bank of Ireland), and if all proceeds, the deal is expected to close in Q2 of 2020.

The acquisition points to a bigger trend underway in e-commerce. The market is very fragmented, not just in terms of the companies who sell goods online but also (and perhaps especially) in terms of the companies that manage the complexities at the back end.

In keeping with that, Sage Pay has a lot of competitors in its specific area of taking and managing the payments process for online retailers and others taking transactions online or via mobile apps. They include some of the same competitors as Elavon’s: newer entrants like Stripe, Adyen, and PayPal (all of which have extensive businesses covering many countries and are each larger than Sage, valued in the billions rather than hundreds of millions of dollars), but also smaller operations like GoCardless as well as more established companies like WorldPay.

This deal is a mark of the consolidation that’s been taking place to gain better economies of scale in a market where individual transactions generally generate incremental revenues.

Sage Pay, in that context, was a relatively small player. It 2018 revenues were £41 million, but it is profitable, with an operating profit of £15 million, and Sage said it expects “to report a statutory profit on disposal of approximately £180 million on completion.”

The deal comes on the heels of Sage Group — which is publicly traded — confirming reports in September that it was looking for strategic alternatives for the payments business. Sage Group for the last couple of years has been divesting payments and banking assets to focus more on accounting, people and payroll software, which it sells through an SaaS model.

“Our vision of becoming a great SaaS company for customers and colleagues alike means we will continue to focus on serving small and medium sized customers with subscription software solutions for Accounting & Financials and People & Payroll,” said Steve Hare, Sage’s CEO, in a statement. “Payments and banking services remain an integral part of Sage’s value proposition and we will deliver them through our growing network of partnerships, including Elavon.”

Elavon, as the consolidator here, was itself acquired by US Bancorp way back in 2001 for $2.1 billion. Currently it is active in 10 countries, but in that same vein of consolidation to improve economies of scale on the technical side, and to aggregate more incremental transactions on the financial side, Elavon’s main objective is to increase its overall share of the e-commerce market in Europe. specifically by expanding with Sage Pay further into the UK and Ireland.

“We are a customer-focused company that is helping businesses succeed in a global marketplace that is changing rapidly,” said Hannah Fitzsimons, president and general manager of Elavon Merchant Services, Europe. “This acquisition brings tremendous talent and leading technology to Elavon, which can be leveraged across the European market.”

Opera’s Africa fintech startup OPay gains $120M from Chinese investors

By Jake Bright

Africa-focused fintech startup OPay has raised a $120 million Series B round backed by Chinese investors.

Located in Lagos and founded by consumer internet company Opera, OPay will use the funds to scale in Nigeria and expand its payments product to Kenya, Ghana and South Africa — Opera’s CFO Frode Jacobsen confirmed to TechCrunch.

Series B investors included Meituan-Dianping, GaoRong, Source Code Capital, Softbank Asia, BAI, Redpoint, IDG Capital, Sequoia China and GSR Ventures.

OPay’s $120 million round comes after the startup raised $50 million in June. It also follows Visa’s $200 million investment in Nigerian fintech company Interswitch and a $40 million raise by Lagos-based payments startup PalmPay — led by China’s Transsion.

There are a couple of quick takeaways. Nigeria has become the epicenter for fintech VC and expansion in Africa. And Chinese investors have made an unmistakable pivot to African tech.

Opera’s activity on the continent represents both trends. The Norway-based, Chinese-owned (majority) company founded OPay in 2018 on the popularity of its internet search engine.

Opera’s web-browser has ranked No. 2 in usage in Africa, after Chrome, the last four years.

The company has built a hefty suite of internet-based commercial products in Nigeria around OPay’s financial utility. These include motorcycle ride-hail app ORide, OFood delivery service and OLeads SME marketing and advertising vertical.

“OPay will facilitate the people in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya and other African countries with the best fintech ecosystem. We see ourselves as a key contributor to…helping local businesses…thrive from…digital business models,” Opera CEO and OPay Chairman Yahui Zhou, said in a statement.

Opera CFO Frode Jacobsen shed additional light on how OPay will deploy the $120 million across Opera’s Africa network. OPay looks to capture volume around bill payments and airtime purchases, but not necessarily as priority.  “That’s not something you do every day. We want to focus our services on things that have high-frequency usage,” said Jacobsen.

Those include transportation services, food services and other types of daily activities, he explained. Jacobsen also noted OPay will use the $120 million to enter more countries in Africa than those disclosed.

Since its Series A raise, OPay in Nigeria has scaled to 140,000 active agents and $10 million in daily transaction volume, according to company stats.

Beyond standing out as another huge funding round, OPay’s $120 million VC raise has significance for Africa’s tech ecosystem on multiple levels.

It marks 2019 as the year Chinese investors went all in on the continent’s startup scene. OPay, PalmPay and East African trucking logistics company Lori Systems have raised a combined $240 million from 15 different Chinese actors in a span of months.

OPay’s funding and expansion plans are also a harbinger for fierce, cross-border fintech competition in Africa’s digital finance space. Parallel events to watch for include Interswitch’s imminent IPO, e-commerce venture Jumia’s shift to digital finance and WhatsApp’s likely entry in African payments.

The continent’s 1.2 billion people represent the largest share of the world’s unbanked and underbanked population — which makes fintech Africa’s most promising digital sector. But it’s becoming a notably crowded sector, where startup attrition and failure will certainly come into play.

And not to be overlooked is how OPay’s capital raise moves Opera toward becoming a multi-service commercial internet platform in Africa.

This places OPay and its Opera-supported suite of products on a competitive footing with other ride-hail, food delivery and payments startups across the continent. That means inevitable competition between Opera and Africa’s largest multi-service internet company, Jumia.

 

China Roundup: Alibaba’s Hong Kong listing and Tencent’s new fuel

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. The earnings season is here. This week, long-time archrivals in the Chinese internet battlefield — Alibaba and Tencent — made some big revelations about their future. First off, let’s look at Alibaba’s long-awaited secondary listing and annual shopping bonanza.

Forget about the number

It’s that time of year. On November 11, Alibaba announced it generated $38.4 billion worth of gross merchandise value during the annual Single’s Day shopping festival, otherwise known as Double 11. It smashed the record and grabbed local headlines again, but the event means little other than a big publicity win for the company and showcasing the art of drumming up sales.

GMV is often used interchangeably with sales in e-commerce. That’s problematic because the number takes into account all transactions, including refunded items, and it’s by no means reflective of a company’s actual revenue. There are numerous ways to juice the figure, too, as I wrote last year. Presales began days in advance, incentives were doled out to spur last-minute orders and no refunds could be processed until November 12.

Don’t be fooled by the big numbers (yes, $38B GMV is BIG), the major growth times are over for Alibaba’s Singles’ Day

Today it functions as a massive marketing/user-acquisition event with generous subsidies — in other words: loss-making not profitable pic.twitter.com/S4Wzmudgkz

— Jon Russell (@jonrussell) November 12, 2019

Even Jiang Fan, the boss of Alibaba’s e-commerce business and the youngest among Alibaba’s 38 most important decision-makers, downplayed the number: “I never worry about transaction volumes. Numbers don’t matter. What’s most important is making Single’s Day fun and turning it into a real festival.”

Indeed, Alibaba put together another year of what’s equivalent to the Super Bowl halftime show. Taylor Swift and other international big names graced the stage as the evening gala was live-streamed and watched by millions across the globe.

.@taylorswift13 performing at the 11.11 Global Shopping Festival Countdown Gala last night in Shanghai. The gala was produced by Youku, Alibaba’s video streaming platform. For more coverage on 11.11, check out our dedicated #Double11 page: https://t.co/VeupwMr5WT pic.twitter.com/suLvCd4Y3m

Alibaba Group (@AlibabaGroup) November 11, 2019

Returning home

Alibaba is going ahead with its secondary listing in Hong Kong on the heels of reports that it could delay the sale due to ongoing political unrest in the city-state. The company is cash-rich, but listing closer to its customers can potentially ease some of the pressure arising from a new era of volatile U.S.-China relationships.

Alibaba is issuing 500 million new shares with an additional over-allotment option of 75 million shares for international underwriters, it said in a company blog. Reports have put the size of its offering between $10 billion and $15 billion, down from the earlier rumored $20 billion.

The giant has long expressed it intends to come home. In 2014, the e-commerce behemoth missed out on Hong Kong because the local exchange didn’t allow dual-class structures, a type of organization common in technology companies that grants different voting rights for different stocks. The giant instead went public in New York and raised the largest initial public offering in history at $25 billion.

“When Alibaba Group went public in 2014, we missed out on Hong Kong with regret. Hong Kong is one of the world’s most important financial centers. Over the last few years, there have been many encouraging reforms in Hong Kong’s capital market. During this time of ongoing change, we continue to believe that the future of Hong Kong remains bright. We hope we can contribute, in our small way, and participate in the future of Hong Kong,” said chairman and chief executive Daniel Zhang in a statement.

Missing out on Alibaba had also been a source of remorse for the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong. Charles Li, chief executive of the HKEX, admitted that losing Alibaba to New York had compelled the bourse to reform. The HKEX has since added dual-class shares and attracted Chinese tech upstarts such as smartphone maker Xiaomi and local services platform Meituan Dianping.

Tencent’s new fuel

Content and social networks have been the major revenue drivers for Tencent since its early years, but new initiatives are starting to gain ground. In the third quarter ended September 30, Tencent’s “fintech and business services” unit, which includes its payments and cloud services, became the firm’s second-largest sales avenue trailing the long-time cash cow of value-added services, essentially virtual items sold in games and social networks.

Payments, in particular, accounted for much of the quarterly growth thanks to increased daily active consumers and number of transactions per user. That’s good news for the company, which said back in 2016 that financial services would be its new focus (in Chinese) alongside content and social. The need to diversify became more salient in recent times as Tencent faces stricter government controls over the gaming sector and intense rivalry from ByteDance, the new darling of advertisers and owner of TikTok and Douyin.

Tencent also broke out revenue for cloud services for the first time. The unit grew 80% year-on-year to rake in 4.7 billion yuan ($670 million) and received a great push as the company pivoted to serve more industrial players and enterprises. Alibaba’s cloud business still leads the Chinese market by a huge margin, with revenue topping $1.3 billion during the September quarter.

Also worth your attention…

Luckin Coffee, the Chinese startup that began as a Starbucks challenger, is starting to look more like a convenient store chain with delivery capacities as it continues to increase store density (a combination of seated cafes, pickup stands and delivery kitchens) and widen product offerings to include a growing snack selection. Though bottom-line loss continued in the quarter, store-level operating profit swung to $26.1 million from a loss in the prior-year quarter. 30 million customers have purchased from Luckin, marking an increase of 413.4% from 6 million a year ago.

Minecraft is on the brink of 300 million registered users in China, its local publisher Netease announced at an event this week. That’s a lot of players, but not totally unreasonable given the game is free-to-play in the country with in-game purchases, so users can easily own multiple accounts. Outside China, the game has sold over 180 million paid copies, according to gaming analyst Daniel Ahmed from Niko Partners.

Xiaomi founder Lei Jun is returning a huge favor by backing a long-time friend. Xpeng Motors, the Chinese electric vehicle startup financed by Alibaba and Foxconn, has received $400 million in capital from a group of backers who weren’t identified except Xiaomi, which became its strategic investor. The marriage would allow Xpeng cars to tap Xiaomi’s growing ecosystem of smart devices, but the relationship dates further back. Lei was an early investor in UCWeb, a browser company founded by He and acquired by Alibaba in 2014. A day after Xiaomi’s began trading in Hong Kong in mid-2018, He wrote on his WeChat feed that he had bought $100 million worth of Xiaomi shares (in Chinese) in support of his old friend.

This Week in Apps: Apple’s vaping app ban, Disney+ gets installed, apps gear up for Black Friday

By Sarah Perez

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support, and the money that flows through it all. What are developers talking about? What do app publishers and marketers need to know? How are politics impacting the App Store and app businesses? And which apps are everyone using?

As mid-November rolls around, we’re looking at a few big stories, including Apple’s decision to ban an entire category of apps due to health concerns, the launch of Disney+ from an app perspective, what Black Friday will mean for e-commerce apps, and more.

Fast Facts

With Disney+’s huge launch (10+ million users!) on everyone’s minds, it’s time to think about what these streaming newcomers mean for the overall landscape and the app stores. In this case, it seems that Disney+’s user base was highly mobile. The company itself announced more than 10 million users, while data on the Disney+ app’s first few days indicates it now has over 10 million downloads. It seems like consumers definitely want to take their new streaming service with them everywhere they go.

  • In 2020, App Annie forecasts consumers will spend more than 674 billion hours in the Entertainment and Video Player and Editor categories worldwide on Android phones, up from an expected 558 billion hours in 2019. Thanks to Disney+, Apple TV+ and soon, HBO Max, Peacock and Quibi, to making the landscape both richer and more complicated.
  • On its launch day, Disney+ hit #1 by iPhone Overall downloads at 8 AM in the U.S. and at 11 AM in Canada — an indication of the ability that strong IP has can really excite consumers to come out in droves. (Unfortunately, that led to some launch day glitches, too.)
  • Apptopia estimated Disney+ was downloaded 3.2 million times in its first 24 hours. The firm also estimated users collectively spent 1.3 million hours watching Disney+ on day one — ahead of Amazon Prime Video, but well behind Netflix.

  • Sensor Tower waited to collect a little more data instead. It found that the Disney+ app was installed approximately 9.6 million times in all available markets (the U.S., Canada, and the Netherlands), since its U.S. launch on Tuesday, Nov. 12. For comparison’s sake, HBO Now’s U.S. launch only saw 180,000 installs in its first three days — or 2% of the Disney+ total. Combined with the test period installs in the Netherlands, the app has now been installed over 10 million times.
  • The hype around Disney+ has had a halo effect. Hulu and ESPN, which were offered in a bundle with Disney+, also grew as a result of the Disney+ launch. Sensor Tower found combined users of the apps in the U.S. and Canada were up 30% in the past week over the week prior.

Headlines

Apple removed all vaping apps from the App Store, citing CDC health concerns

The CDC says 42 people have died due to vaping product use and thousands more cases of lung injuries have been reported from 49 states. Now, Apple has made the controversial decision to remove all 181 vaping-related apps from its App Store — including those with news and information about vaping and even vaping-related games, Axios reported this week.

Some say Apple is helping to protect kids and teens by limiting their exposure to e-cigarette and vaping products, which are being used to addict a younger generation to nicotine and cause serious disease. Others argue that Apple is over-reaching. After all, many of the lung illnesses involve people who were vaping illegally obtained THC, studies indicated.

This isn’t the first time Apple has banned a category of apps because of what appear to be moral concerns. The company in the past had booted apps that promoted weed or depicted gun violence, for example. In the case of vaping apps, Apple cited the public health crisis and youth epidemic as contributing factors, telling Axios that:

We take great care to curate the App Store as a trusted place for customers, particularly youth, to download apps. We’re constantly evaluating apps, and consulting the latest evidence, to determine risks to users’ health and well-being. Recently, experts ranging from the CDC to the American Heart Association have attributed a variety of lung injuries and fatalities to e-cigarette and vaping products, going so far as to call the spread of these devices a public health crisis and a youth epidemic. We agree, and we’ve updated our App Store Review Guidelines to reflect that apps encouraging or facilitating the use of these products are not permitted. As of today, these apps are no longer available to download.

Existing users will still be able to use their apps, but new users will not be able to download the banned apps going forward.

Minecraft Earth arrives 

Minecraft Earth launched early last week across 9 countries on both Android and iOS and now it’s come to the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and several other markets. Some expect the app will rival the success of the AR breakout hit, Pokémon Go, which was thought at the time to be the precursor to a new wave of massive AR gaming titles. But in reality, that didn’t happen. The highly anticipated follow-up from Niantic, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite didn’t come close to competing with its predecessor, generating $12 million in its first month, compared with Pokémon Go’s first-month earnings of $300 million. With Minecraft Earth now sitting at No. 2 (c’mon, you can’t unseat Disney+) on the U.S. App Store, it seems there’s potential for another AR kingpin.

App Annie releases a user acquisition playbook

A top name in App Store intelligence, App Annie this week released a new how-to handbook focused on user acquisition strategies on mobile. Sure the free download is just a bit of lead gen for App Annie, but the guide promises to fill you in on all you need to know to be successful in acquiring mobile users. The playbook’s arrival follows App Annie’s acquisition of adtech insights firm Libring this fall, as it expands to cover more aspects of running an app business. Just as important as rankings and downloads are the very real costs associated with running an app business — including the cost of acquiring users.

Disney+ has already attracted over 10 million subscribers

By Darrell Etherington

Disney’s launch of its premium subscription streaming service Disney+ was not without issues — high demand resulted in content not being accessible for hours on its first day of availability. The company cited higher-than-expected demand as a factor, and now we have a rough estimate of the size of that demand — Disney has revealed that it signed up 10 million users since its Tuesday debut.

That’s a lot of subscribers in a very short period. To put it in perspective, Netflix recently reported 158 million subscribers, but that’s its total audience after many years of availability, across a broad global market. Disney+ is launching only in a few markets around the world, including the U.S., Canada and the Netherlands, while Netflix has grown to cover much of the world. Netflix also started out with much lower subscriber counts when it was U.S.-only, with 7.38 million in 2007, the year it began offering streaming for the first time.

Disney+ has been offering customers in the U.S. the ability to pre-order their accounts for a couple of months, so its subscriber count represents a bit of runway and marketing effort, rather than just pent-up demand. It’s also offering a year of free access to qualifying Verizon subscribers. But that’s still a very impressive debut for a brand new streaming offering, and a firm basis upon which Disney can grow its audience through future releases and marketing efforts.

Wayfair’s app adds 3D visualization tools, including interactive photos & a room planner

By Sarah Perez

Home furnishing retailer Wayfair was among the first to adopt AR technology as a means of helping people better visual furniture and accessories in their own home, ahead of purchase. Today, the company is expanding its feature set to allow for more visualization capabilities — even when you’re shopping out in the real world and aren’t able to take a photo of your room to use AR.

Instead, shoppers will be able to leverage a new feature called “Interactive Photo,” which lets shoppers take a photo of their room then visualize multiple products within it, even when they’re not home in their own space. The feature itself uses technology to understand the spatial information of the room in the image to give you an AR-like experience using your photo.

Alongside this addition, Wayfair has updated its app to put its camera tools more at the forefront of the app experience. Similar to how you can click a camera icon next to the Amazon app’s search bar, you can now do the same in Wayfair. You can also then toggle between the various camera-based features with swipe gestures, in order to move between Wayfair’s visual search and its “View in Room” AR feature, which is also where you’ll find the new “Interactive Photo.”

The retailer has also launched its room design tool, Room Planner 3D, on the mobile shopping app. This allows shoppers to create an interactive room 3D room that they can view from any angle, while testing out different layouts, styles, room dimensions and more.

The update follows Amazon’s launch earlier this year of its own visual shopping experience called Showroom, which let online and mobile shoppers try out furniture and other décor in a customizable virtual room where they pick the wall color, flooring, carpet and more.

“With the latest updates to the Wayfair app, we continue to push the limits of what’s possible by iterating on advanced AR and machine learning capabilities, and introducing new and innovative spatial awareness techniques to an e-commerce experience, bridging the gap between imagination and reality,” said Matt Zisow, Vice President of Product Management, Experience Design and Analytics at Wayfair, in a statement.

The new feature set comes shortly after Wayfair’s third-quarter earnings, where the company reported a wider-than-expected loss of $2.33 per share, adjusted, versus the expected $2.10 per share. Revenue was up 35% year-over-year to $2.3 billion, above the anticipated $2.27 billion, however. The company attributed the miss to “short-term headwinds from tariffs.”

However, as the holiday shopping season heats up, Wayfair still needs to unveil enticing features that will encourage consumers to redownload its app and shop — especially given that smartphones alone drove $2.1 billion in U.S. online sales last Black Friday.  

The new Wayfair app is out now on iOS and Android, but the new features — Interactive Photo, Integrated Camera and Room Planner 3D — are only on iOS.

Nigeria’s Interswitch confirms $1B valuation after Visa investment

By Jake Bright

Nigerian digital payments firm Interswitch confirmed today it has reached unicorn status after Visa acquired a minority equity stake in the firm.

“The investment makes Interswitch one of the most valuable African fintech businesses with a valuation of $1 billion,” Interswitch said in a release to TechCrunch.

The Visa investment could create the first of two market distinctions for Interswitch — as it shouldn’t change the Lagos based company’s plans to go public.

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

Interswitch did not reveal the amount of Visa’s investment and would not confirm Sky News reporting Monday that pegged it at $200 million for 20%.

Whatever the exact number, Interswitch’s confirmation of a $1 billion valuation marks another milestone in African tech.

Only one VC backed startup, turned later-stage company on the continent — e-commerce venture Jumia — has generated enough revenue and capital to achieve a ten-figure valuation.

For the near to medium-term, Interswitch could stand as Africa’s sole tech-unicorn, since Jumia’s volatile share-price and declining market-cap since an April IPO have dropped the company’s worth below $1 billion (for now).

Founded in 2002 by Mitchell Elegbe, Interswitch pioneered the infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s then predominantly paper-ledger and cash-based economy.

The company now provides much of rails for Nigeria’s online banking system that serves Africa’s largest economy and population. Interswitch offers a number of personal and business finance products, including its Verve payment cards and Quickteller payment app.

Interswitch Quickteller

From its home-base of Nigeria Interswitch has expanded its physical presence to Uganda, Gambia and Kenya .

Interswitch also sells its products in 23 African countries and launched a partnership in August for its Verve cardholders to make payments on Discover’s global network.

Visa and Interswitch are touting the equity investment as a strategic collaboration between the two companies, without a lot of detail on what that will mean.

“The partnership will create an instant acceptance network across Africa to benefit consumers and merchants,” was the characterization offered in a press release.

Verve Times Square Interswitch

Interswitch’s imminent IPO has been delayed for several years. CEO and founder Mitchell Elegbe told TechCrunch, “a dual-listing on the London and Lagos stock exchange is an option on the table,” in a January 2016 call.

In subsequent years, Elegbe and other Interswitch executives named Nigeria’s recession as a reason for the delay.

A number stories have surfaced, including Bloomberg News reporting in July, that the company was poised to go public on the LSE.

TechCrunch’s source close to the matter offered the latest indication that Interswitch will list on a major exchange by mid-2020.

With possible exits for backers Helios Investment Partners, TA Investments and IFC, Interswitch’s unicorn status and pending IPO could create more momentum for startup investment in Africa. VC to the continent has grown significantly over the last 5 years, but stands at just over $1 billion annually, per Partech numbers.

Interswitch could also be in a stronger position to offer more capital directly to the continent’s fintech startups by reviving its ePayment Growth Fund. The venture arm made two investments in 2015, but then went largely quiet.

 

 

 

 

D2C companies deliver customer delight and simplicity

By Walter Thompson
Ashwin Ramasamy Contributor
Ashwin Ramasamy is the cofounder of PipeCandy, which provides algorithm-generated insights and predictions about ecommerce and D2C companies. His company helps investors, banks, tech firms and governments understand the global ecommerce landscape. @Ashwinizer

As the holiday season approaches, I can feel the tension in the air: how do I make my gifts stand out?

Thankfully, there are so many fun direct to consumer (D2C) categories — from bath salts to plants, to even organic fertilizer.

A New York City-based VC firm once asked us, “there are so many products that are getting launched in the direct to consumer route. It’s good that you track them. But can you tell us which segment is likely to go direct to consumer?” In other words, they were asking us to be psychics.

We aren’t, but I never let that question go.

There are many reasons why a brand can go D2C. You could unbundle every category on Amazon and there could be a case made for going direct to consumer. Several brands that do just that, but Amazon is not the obvious place to look for all answers.

Let’s take the example of plants and fertilizer. I want to gift a plant this holiday season, but I have two problems: I don’t know which plant to pick for my friend because I don’t know his preferences, and even if I find the right plant, I don’t know whether he’ll be able to keep it alive.

Generally, when people consider purchasing a plant, it’s not because they woke up after having a startling dream about a fern or a ficus that won its heart — it’s more likely that they looked at an empty balcony while sipping their morning coffee and thought it needed a touch of green. People aren’t buying plants; they’re buying better visuals, and a potted palm tree is a vehicle to their preferred emotional state.

But what if he’s unable to take care of the plants? Should I just buy some really good candles instead? Rooted, an online plant store, sorts its offerings using criteria like the amount of light required and how frequently a plant needs to be watered. As a result, I found Tim, a snake plant that’s “virtually indestructible and adaptable to almost any conditions.”

Some products are complex. No two plants are the same, and no two plant buyers are identical, either. It’s complicated. You can walk into a nursery and get the plant you are drawn towards and read the instructions wrapped inside, but the onus is still on you to help it thrive.

Companies like Rooted and Bloomscape know that you are buying an emotional state, so they help you avoid post-purchase dissonance. Instead, they offer a customer-focused product experience that starts with choosing the right plant and includes an onboarding kit that educates users, all contained within a continuous positive feedback loop delivered through carefully designed, friendly, educational content.

By going direct to consumer, brands can personalize the buying experience, optimize customer enjoyment and use, educate them at the right cadence, and ultimately, help them successfully harvest the emotions they were seeking.

This approach works for any category that is perceived to be complex. Whether it’s coffee, wine, food supplements or plants, these products are complex experiences that need to be tailored to customers, and the education process could be overwhelming. Brands that get it right can achieve the right experience by going direct to consumer.

People are generally resistant to change, but they love brands that can help them find a better version of themselves. Fear of the unknown and making the wrong decision ends in post-purchase dissonance; bad brands introduces dissonance, while a good brand attenuates this fear. The good or the bad is determined by the onboarding experience, intuitive design, content, online support, customer reviews and after-sales experience.

Like batteries that store power, brands store emotional states, positive and negative; a consumer’s interaction with Comcast taps into a different range of emotions than a visit to an Apple Store.

Creating comfortable footwear, for example, requires complex engineering; with unique types for walking, cycling and running, how do you figure which one is right for you? Nike Fit, an app released this year, uses AI to help customers find the optimal fit for their foot.

“Three out of every five people are likely to wear the wrong size shoe,” the company said in a statement. “Length and width don’t provide nearly enough data to get a shoe to fit comfortably. Sizing as we know it is a gross simplification of a complex problem.” The AI even tells you if your right foot is larger than your left and recommends the best sneaker; emotions unlocked! It’s no wonder Nike’s doubling down on its D2C channels.

Ultimately, a brand that performs well is a brand that has recognized and solved a customer’s problem; ecommerce and D2C are mediums that to do precisely that. A good brand offers good experience design that brings simplicity to a complex product, magically making it seem familiar.

Africa Roundup: Goldman leads $30M Twiga raise, China grows tech influence, Jumia weathers lockup-expiry

By Jake Bright

Kenya’s Twiga Foods raised a total of $30 million in October from lenders and investors led by Goldman Sachs.

This adds to the list of African startups the U.S. financial firm has backed, including e-commerce venture Jumia and South African fintech startup Jumo.

Twiga, a B2B food distribution company, will use its funds to set up a distribution center in Nairobi and deepen its conversion to offering supply chain services for both agricultural and FMCG products.

The startup is also targeting Pan-African expansion to French speaking West Africa by third quarter 2020, CEO Peter Njonjo told TechCrunch.

The venture has moved quickly on diversifying its supply-chain product mix. “We’re not just doing fruits and vegetables…I’d say we’re at 50/50 now between FMCG  and fresh,” said Njonjo.

Twiga doesn’t plan to move toward entering or supplying B2C e-commerce, where it could become a competitor to other online retailers, such as Jumia.

But the company has factored for advantages in the B2C e-commerce space. “If you’re able to serve Nairobi’s 180,000 retailers, it means that the furthest customer would be less than two kilometers away from any shop. That’s the power of building a B2C business on top of a B2B platform. So definitely, the potential is there,” said Njonjo.

China is known for its relationship with Africa based on trade and infrastructure, but not so much for tech. That’s changing with a number of Chinese actors increasing the country’s digital influence across the continent’s tech markets.

This includes Africa focused mobile phone Transsion’s IPO and planned expansion in Africa and recent moves on the continent by Alibaba and Chinese owned Opera.

In an ExtraCrunch feature, TechCrunch detailed China’s growing tech ties with Africa and what they could mean for the continent’s innovation ecosystem and Africa’s relationship with China overall.

In two stories in Ocotober, TechCrunch followed Jumia’s IPO lockup expiry and volatile share-price ahead of the Jumia’s November third-quarter earnings call.

The Africa focused e-commerce company — with online verticals in 14 countries —  has had a bumpy ride since becoming the first tech venture operating in Africa to list on a major exchange. Jumia saw its opening share price of $14.50 jump 70% after its NYSE IPO in April.

Then in May, Jumia’s stock tumbled when it came under assault from a short-seller, Andrew Left, who accused the company of fraud in its SEC filings.

In August, Jumia’s 2nd quarter earnings showed upside and downside: revenue growth still with big losses. Much of it may have been overshadowed by Jumia’s own admission of a fraud perpetrated by some employees and agents of its JForce sales program.

Jumia’s core investors appeared to show continued confidence in the company in October, when there wasn’t a big sell-off after the IPO lockup period expired.

It appears that what Jumia disclosed does not validate the claims in Citron Research’s May report. But the markets still seem wary of the company’s stock, which now stands at roughly half its opening IPO price.

Jumia will have a chance to clear up any lingering confusion and showcase its latest numbers on its third-quarter earnings call November 12.

PhutiMahanyele Dabengwa 52TechCrunch reported additional details to two big African tech market events that happened over the last year. First, Naspers Foundry’s new leader, Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa, confirmed the 1.4 billion rand (≈$100 million) VC arm of South Africa’s Naspers is accepting pitches.

Announced in late 2018, Naspers Foundry will make equity investments in various amounts, primarily from Series A up to Series B in South African ventures. Founders from other parts of Africa with startup operations in South Africa can be considered for funding, Mahanyele-Dabengwa clarified.

CcHub and iHub CEO Bosun Tijani revealed more detail about the recent merger of both names. CcHub – iHub will pursue more operating revenue from consulting and VC investing, vs. grants, according to Tijani. The new Nigeria and Kenya based innovation network will also look to bring an Africa startup tour to the U.S. and is considering opening an office in San Francisco, he said.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch

Africa can list more gazelles at home than unicorn IPOs abroadKenyan telco Safaricom’s Alpha incubator faces uncertain futureNigeria’s #StopRobbingUs campaign could spur tech advocacy group, CEOs saySahara Reporters founder Sowore remains detained in Nigeria

At the recent TechCrunch Disrupt SF, Senegalese VC investor Marieme Diop suggested that Silicon Valley’s unicorn IPO model might not be right for African startups. The is largely because the …

African tech around the ‘net

Kenya’s BitPesa secures $15M debt funding as it rebrands

SA’s SweepSouth banks $3.95M to expand, launch new services

TLCom hosts first summit for African female tech founders in Nigeria

 

 

 

 

 

 

Former Stitch Fix COO Julie Bornstein is rewriting the e-commerce playbook

By Kate Clark

More than two years after Julie Bornstein–Stitch Fix’s former chief operating officer–mysteriously left the subscription-based personal styling service only months before its initial public offering, she’s taking the wraps off her first independent venture.

Shortly after departing Stitch Fix, Bornstein began building The Yes, an AI-powered shopping platform expected to launch in the first half of 2020. She’s teamed up with The Yes co-founder and chief technology officer Amit Aggarwal, who’s held high-level engineering roles at BloomReach and Groupon, and most recently, served as an entrepreneur-in-residence at Bain Capital Ventures, to “rewrite the architecture of e-commerce.”

“This is an idea I’ve been thinking about since I was 10 and spending my weekends at the mall,” Bornstein, whose resume includes chief marketing officer & chief digital officer at Sephora, vice president of e-commerce at Urban Outfitters, VP of e-commerce at Nordstrom and director of business development at Starbucks, tells TechCrunch. “All the companies I have worked at were very much leading in this direction.”

Coming out of stealth today, the team at The Yes is readying a beta mode to better understand and refine their product. Bornstein and Aggarwal have raised $30 million in venture capital funding to date across two financings. The first, a seed round, was co-led by Forerunner Ventures’ Kirsten Green and NEA’s Tony Florence. The Series A was led by True Ventures’ Jon Callaghan with participation from existing investors. Bornstein declined to disclose the company’s valuation.

“AI and machine learning already dominate in many verticals, but e-commerce is still open for a player to have a meaningful impact,” Callaghan said in a statement. “Amit is leading a team to build deep neural networks that legacy systems cannot achieve.”

Bornstein and Aggarwal withheld many details about the business during our conversation. Rather, the pair said the product will speak for itself when it launches next year. In addition to being an AI-powered shopping platform, Bornstein did say The Yes is working directly with brands and “creating a new consumer shopping experience that helps address the issue of overwhelm in shopping today.”

As for why she decided to leave Stitch Fix just ahead of its $120 million IPO, Bornstein said she had an epiphany.

“I realized that technology had changed so much, meanwhile … the whole framework underlying e-commerce had remained the same since the late 90s’ when I helped build Nordstrom.com,” she said. “If you could rebuild the underlying architecture and use today’s technology, you could actually bring to life an entirely new consumer experience for shopping.”

The Yes, headquartered in Silicon Valley and New York City, has also brought on Lisa Green, the former head of industry, fashion and luxury at Google, as its senior vice president of partnerships, and Taylor Tomasi Hill, whose had stints at Moda Operandi and FortyFiveTen, as its creative director. Other investors in the business include Comcast Ventures and Bain Capital Ventures

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