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Today — April 2nd 2020Your RSS feeds

Visa’s Africa strategy banks on startup partnerships

By Jake Bright

Visa has prioritized growth in Africa, and partnering with startups is central to its strategy.

This became obvious in 2019 after the global financial services giant entered a series of collaborations on the continent, but Visa confirmed it in their 2020 Investor Day presentation.

On the company’s annual call, participants mentioned Africa 28 times and featured regional startups prominently in the accompanying deck. Visa’s regional president for Central and Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa (CEMEA), Andrew Torre, detailed the region’s payments potential and his company’s plans to tap it. “We’re partnering with non-conventional players to realize this potential — fintechs, neobanks and digital wallets — to reach the one billion consumer opportunity,” he said.

Africa strategy and team

TechCrunch has covered a number of Visa’s Africa collaborations and spoke to two execs driving the company’s engagement with startups from Nigeria to South Africa.

Visa’s head of Strategic Partnerships, Fintech and Ventures for Africa, Otto Williams, has been out front, traveling the continent and engaging fintech founders.

Located in Cape Town, Visa’s group general manager for Sub-Saharan Africa, Aida Diarra, oversees the company’s operations in 48 countries. Visa has a long track record working with the region’s large banking entities, but that’s shifted to smaller ventures.

visa africa

Image Credits: Visa

ARCH Venture Partners raises $1.46 billion across two funds for biotech investing

By Jonathan Shieber

Against a backdrop where the life-or-death consequences of biotechnology innovation are becoming increasingly apparent as the world races to develop vaccines and therapies to treat COVID-19, life sciences investor ARCH Venture Partners has raised $1.46 billion in funding to finance new tech development.

The two funds, ARCH Venture Fund X and ARCH Venture Fund X Overage, are the latest in the firm’s long line of investment vehicles dedicated to invest in early stage biotechnology companies.

“ARCH has always been driven to invest in great science to impact human health. There isn’t a better illustration of our principles than our all-in battle against COVID-19,” said co-founder and Managing Director Robert Nelsen in a statement. “The healthcare revolution will be accelerated by the changes that are happening now and we are excited to continue to invest aggressively in risk takers doing truly transformational science.”

ARCH portfolio companies Vir Biotechnology, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, VBI Vaccines, Brii Biosciences, and Sana Biotechnology are all working on COVID-19 therapeutics; while Quanterix is developing technology to support clinical testing and clinical trial development. Another company that ARCH has backed, Twist Biosciences, has gene editing tools that the company believes can support therapeutic and vaccine development; and Bellerophon, a developer of inhaled nitric oxide delivery technologies, received emergency access approval from the FDA as a treatment to help alleviate respiratory distress associated with COVID-19.

The firm’s Overage fund will be used to take larger stakes in later-stage companies that require more capital, the firm said.

“Our companies bring cutting-edge science, tools and talent to bear in developing medicines for a wide range of diseases and conditions faced by millions. With these two new funds, we are continuing that work with urgency and a deep sense of purpose,” managing director Kristina Burow said in a statement. “We invest at all levels, whether it’s fifty thousand dollars or hundreds of millions, so that each company and each technology has the best chance to advance and change the landscape.”

The two new funds are roughly the same size as ARCH’s last investment funds, which closed in 2016 with $1.1that billion, but are a big jump from the 2014 ARCH funds that raised $560 million in total capital commitments.

The increasing size of the ARCH funds is a reflection of a broader industry trend which has seen established funds significantly expand their capital under management, but also is indicative of the rising status of biotech investing in the startup landscape.

These days, it’s programmable biology, not software, that’s eating the world.

“ARCH remains committed to our mission of the last 35 years, advancing the most promising innovations from leading life science and physical sciences research to serve the worldwide community by addressing critical health and well-being challenges,” said Keith Crandell in a statement. “ARCH has been privileged to found, support and invest in groundbreaking new companies pursuing advancements in infectious disease, mental health, immunology, genomic and biological tools, data sciences and ways of reimagining diagnostics and therapies.”

Managing directors for the new fund include Robert Nelsen, Keith Crandell, Kristina Burow, Mark McDonnell, Steve Gillis and Paul Thurk.

How 6 top VCs are adapting to the new uncertainty

By Arman Tabatabai

As the global economy grinds to a halt, every business sector has been impacted, including the linked worlds of startups and venture capital.

But how much has really changed? If you read VC Twitter, you might think that nothing has changed at all. It’s not hard to find investors who say they are still cutting checks and doing deals. But as Q1 venture data trickles in, it appears that a slowdown in VC activity is gradually forming, something that founders have anecdotally shared with TechCrunch.

To get a better handle on how venture capitalists are approaching today’s market, TechCrunch corresponded with a number of active investors to learn how their investment selection process might be changing in light of COVID-19 and its related disruptions. We wanted to know how their investing cadence in Q1 2020 compared to the final quarter of 2019 and the prior-year period. We also asked if their focus had changed, how valuations have shifted and what their take on the LP market is today.

We heard back from Duncan Turner of SOSV, Alex Doll of TenEleven Ventures, Alex Niehenke of Scale Venture Partners, Paul Murphy of Northzone, Sean Park of Anthemis and John Vrionis of Unusual Ventures.

We’ll start with the key themes from their answers and then share each set of responses in detail.

Three key themes for raising in 2020

The VCs who responded haven’t slowed their investing pace — yet.

There’s likely some selection bias at work, but the venture capitalists who were willing to answer our questions were quick to note that they wrote a similar number of checks in Q1 2020 as in both Q4 2019 (the sequentially preceding quarter) and Q1 2019 (the year-ago quarter). Some were even willing to share numbers.

‘A perfect storm for first time managers,’ say VCs with their own shops

By Connie Loizos

Until very recently, it had begun to seem like anyone with a thick enough checkbook and some key contacts in the startup world could not only fund companies as an angel investor but even put himself or herself in business as a fund manager.

It helped that the world of venture fundamentally changed and opened up as information about its inner workings flowed more freely. It didn’t hurt, either, that many billions of dollars poured into Silicon Valley from outfits and individuals around the globe who sought out stakes in fast-growing, privately held companies — and who needed help in securing those positions.

Of course, it’s never really been as easy or straightforward as it looks from the outside. While the last decade has seen many new fund managers pick up traction, much of the capital flooding into the industry has accrued to a small number of more established players that have grown exponentially in terms of assets under management. In fact, talk with anyone who has raised a first-time fund and you’re likely to hear that the fundraising process is neither glamorous nor lucrative and that it’s paved with very short phone conversations. And that’s in a bull market.

What happens in what’s suddenly among the worst economic environments the world has seen? First and foremost, managers who’ve struck out on their own suggest putting any plans on the back burner. “I would love to be positive, and I’m an optimist, buut I would have to say that now is probably one of the toughest times” to get a fund off the ground,” says Aydin Senkut, who founded the firm Felicis Ventures in 2006 and just closed its seventh fund.

It’s a perfect storm for first-time managers,” adds Charles Hudson, who launched his own shop, Precursor Ventures, in 2015.

Hitting pause doesn’t mean giving up, suggests Eva Ho, cofounder of the three-year-old, seed-stage L.A.-based shop Fika Ventures, which last year closed its second fund with $76 million. She says not to get “too dismayed” by the challenges. Still, it’s good to understand what a first-time manager is up against right now, and what can be learned more broadly about how to proceed when the time is right.

Know it’s hard, even in the best times

As a starting point, it’s good to recognize that it’s far harder to assemble a first fund than anyone who hasn’t done it might imagine.

Hudson knew he wanted to leave his last job as a general partner with SoftTech VC when the firm — since renamed Uncork Capital — amassed enough capital that it no longer made sense for it to issue very small checks to nascent startups. “I remember feeling like, ‘Gosh, I’ve reached a point where the business model for our fund is getting in the way of me investing in the kind of companies that naturally speak to me,” which is largely pre-product startups.

Hudson suggests he may have overestimated interest in his initial idea to create a single GP fund that largely backs ideas that are too early for other investors. “We had a pretty big LP based [at SoftTech] but what I didn’t realize is the LP base that’s interested in someone who is on fund three or four is very different than the LP base that’s interested in backing a brand new manager.”

Hudson says he spent a “bunch of time talking to fund of funds, university endowments — people who were just not right for me until someone pulled me aside and just said, ‘Hey, you’re talking to the wrong people. You need to find some family offices. You need to find some friends of Charles. You need to find people who are going to back you because they think this is a good idea and who aren’t quite so orthodox in terms of what they want to see in terms partner composition and all that.'”

Collectively, it took “300 to 400 LP conversations” and two years to close his first fund with $15 million. (Its now raising its third pre-seed fund).

Ho says it took less time for Fika to close its first fund but that she and her partners talked with 600 people in order to close their $41 million debut effort, adding that she felt like a “used car salesman” by the end of the process.

Part of the challenge was her network, she says. “I wasn’t connected to a lot of high-net-worth individuals or endowments or foundations. That was a whole network that was new to me, and they didn’t know who the heck I was, so there’s a lot of proving to do.” A proof-of-concept fund instill confidence in some of these investors, though Ho notes you have to be able to live off its economics, which can be miserly.

She also says that as someone who’d worked at Google and helped found the location data company Factual, she underestimated the work involved in running a small fund. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ve started these companies and run these big teams. How how different could it be? Learning the motions and learning what it’s really like to run the funds and to administer a fund and all responsibilities and liabilities that come with it . . . it made me really stop and think, ‘Do I want to do this for 20 to 30 years, and if so, what’s the team I want to do it with?'”

Investors will offer you funky deals; avoid these if you can

In Hudson’s case, an LP offered him two options, either a typical LP agreement wherein the outfit would write a small check, or an option wherein it would make a “significant investment that have been 40% of our first fund,” says Hudson.

Unsurprisingly, the latter offer came with a lot of strings. Namely, the LP said it wanted to have a “deeper relationship” with Hudson, which he took to mean it wanted a share of Precursor’s profits beyond what it would receive as a typical investor in the fund.

“It was very hard to say no to that deal, because I didn’t get close to raising the amount of money that I would have gotten if I’d said yes for another year,” says Hudson. He still thinks it was the right move, however. “I was just like, how do I have a conversation with any other LP about this in the future if I’ve already made the decision to give this away?”

Fika similarly received an offer that would have made up 25 percent of the outfit’s debut fund, but the investor wanted a piece of the management company. It was “really hard to turn down because we had nothing else,” recalls Ho. But she says that other funds Fika was talking with made the decision simpler. “They were like, ‘If you sign on to those terms, we’re out.” The team decided that taking a shortcut that could damage them longer term wasn’t worth it.

Your LPs have questions, but you should question LPs, too

Senkut started off with certain financial advantages that many VCs do not, having been the first product manager at Google and enjoying the fruits of its IPO before leaving the outfit in 2005 along with many other Googleaires, as they were dubbed at the time.

Still, as he tells it, it was “not a friendly time a decade ago” with most solo general partners spinning out of other venture funds instead of search engine giants. In the end, it took him “50 no’s before I had my first yes” — not hundreds —   but it gave him a taste of being an outsider in an insider industry, and he seemingly hasn’t forgotten that feeling.

Indeed, according to Senkut, anyone who wants to crack into the venture industry needs to get into the flow of the best deals by hook or by crook. In his case, for example, he shadowed angel investor Ron Conway for some time, working checks into some of the same deals that Conway was backing.

“If you want to get into the movie industry, you need to be in hit movies,” says Senkut. “If you want to get into the investing industry, you need to be in hits. And the best way to get into hits is to say, ‘Okay. Who has an extraordinary number of hits, who’s likely getting the best deal flow, because the more successful you are, the better companies you’re going to see, the better the companies that find you.”

Adds Senkut, “The danger in this business is that it’s very easy to make a mistake. It’s very easy to chase deals that are not going to go anywhere. And so I think that’s where [following others] things really helped me.”

Senkut has developed an enviable track record over time. The companies that Felicis has backed and been acquired include Credit Karma, which was just gobbled up by Intuit; Plaid, sold in January to Visa; Ring, sold in 2018 to Amazon, and Cruise, sold to General Motors in 2016, and that’s saying nothing of its portfolio companies to go public.

That probably gives him a kind of confidence that it’s harder to earlier managers to muster. Still, Senkut also says it’s very important for anyone raising a fund to ask the right questions of potential investors, who will sometimes wittingly or unwittingly waste a manager’s time.

He says, for example, that with Felicis’s newest fund, the team asked many managers outright about how many assets they have under management, how much of those assets are dedicated to venture and private equity, and how much of their allotment to each was already taken. They did this so they don’t find themselves in a position of making a capital call that an investor can’t meet, especially given that venture backers have been writing out checks to new funds at a faster pace than they’ve ever been asked to before.

In fact, Felicis added new managers who “had room” while cutting back some existing LPs “that we respected . .. because if you ask the right questions, it becomes clear whether they’re already 20% over-allocated [to the asset class] and there’s no possible way [they are] even going to be able to invest if they want to.”

It’s a “little bit of an eight ball to figure out what are your odds and the probability of getting money even if things were to turn south,” he notes.

Given that they have, the questions look smarter still.

Proposed amendments to the Volcker Rule could be a lifeline for venture firms hit by market downturn

By Jonathan Shieber

In the wake of the financial crisis, Congress passed regulations limiting the types of investments that banks could make into private equity and venture capital funds. As cash strapped investors pull back on commitments to venture funds given the precipitous drop of public market stocks, loosening restrictions on the how banks invest cash could be a lifeline for venture funds.

That’s the position that the National Venture Capital Association is taking on the issue in comments sent to the chairs of the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and the Commodities Future Trading Commission.

The proposed revisions of the Volcker Rule would exclude qualifying venture capital funds from the covered fund definition.

“The loss of banking entities as limited partners in venture capital funds has had a disproportionate impact on cities and regions with emerging entrepreneurial ecosystems — areas outside of Silicon Valley and other traditional technology centers,” NVCA president and chief executive Bobby Franklin wrote. “The more challenging reality of venture fundraising in these areas of the country tends to require investment from a more diverse set of limited partners.”

Franklin cited the case of Renaissance Venture Capital, a Michigan-based regionally focused fund that estimated the Volcker Rule cost them $50 million in potential capital commitments resulting in the loss of a potential $800 million in capital invested in the state of Michigan.

“This narrative unfortunately repeats itself, as we have heard firsthand from investors about how the Volcker Rule has affected venture capital investment and entrepreneurial activity across the country,” wrote Franklin. “The majority of these concerns about the Volcker Rule have come from members located in regions with emerging ecosystems, including states like Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Virginia, to name a few.”

It’s not only small states that could be impacted by the decision to reverse course on banking investments into venture firms in these uncertain times.

There’s a growing concern among venture investors that — just like in 2008 — their limited partners might find that they’re over-allocated into venture investments given the decline in markets, which would force them to pull back on making commitments to new funds.

“Institutional LPs will run into the same issues they had in 2008. If you used to manage $10B and the market declines and you now manage $6B, the percentage allocated to private equity has now increased relative to the whole portfolio,” Hyde Park Ventures partner, Ira Weiss told a Forbes columnist in a March interview. “They’re really not going to look at new managers. If you’ve done really well as a manager, they will probably re-up but may reduce commitment amounts. This will bleed backwards into the venture market. This is happening at a time when Softbank has already had a lot of trouble and people had not really modulated for that yet, but now they will.”

Some of the largest investment funds have already closed on capital, insulating them from the worst hits. These include funds like New Enterprise Associates and General Catalyst . But newer funds are going to have a harder time raising. For them, giving banks the ability to invest in venture firms could be a big boon — and a confidence boost that the industry needs at a time when investors across the board are getting skittish.

“Fundraising for new funds in 2020 and 2021 might prove to be more difficult as asset managers think about rebalancing their portfolio and/or protecting their assets from the current volatility in the market,” Aaron Holiday told Forbes . “This means that VC investing could slow down in 12 – 24 months after the most recent wave of funds (i.e. 2018 and 2019 vintages) are fully deployed.”

Yesterday — April 1st 2020Your RSS feeds

Mobile payments firms in India are now scrambling to make money

By Manish Singh

Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and chief executive of India’s most valuable startup, Paytm, posed an existential question in a recent press conference.

“What do you think of the commercial model for digital mobile payments. How do we make money?” Sharma asked Nandan Nilekani, one of the key architects of the Universal Payments Infrastructure that created a digital payments revolution in the country.

It’s the multi-billion-dollar question that scores of local startups and international giants have been scrambling to answer as many of them aggressively shift their focus to serving merchants and building lending products and other financial services .

New Delhi’s abrupt move to invalidate much of the paper bills in the cash-dominated nation in late 2016 sent hundreds of millions of people to cash machines for months to follow.

For a handful of startups such as Paytm and MobiKwik, this cash crunch meant netting tens of millions of new users in a span of a few months.

India then moved to work with a coalition of banks to develop the payments infrastructure that, unlike Paytm and MobiKwik’s earlier system, did not act as an intermediary “mobile wallet” to serve as an intermediary between users and their banks, but facilitated direct transaction between two users’ bank accounts.

Silicon Valley companies quickly took notice. For years, Google and the likes have attempted to change the purchasing behavior of people in many Asian and African markets, where they have amassed hundreds of millions of users.

In Pakistan, for instance, most people still run errands to neighborhood stores when they want to top up credit to make phone calls and access the internet.

With China keeping its doors largely closed for foreign firms, India, where many American giants have already poured billions of dollars to find their next billion users, it was a no-brainer call.

“Unlike China, we have given equal opportunities to both small and large domestic and foreign companies,” said Dilip Asbe, chief executive of NPCI, the payments body behind UPI.

And thus began the race to participate in the grand Indian experiment. Investors have followed suit as well. Indian fintech startups raised $2.74 billion last year, compared to 3.66 billion that their counterparts in China secured, according to research firm CBInsights.

And that bet in a market with more than half a billion internet users has already started to pay off.

“If you look at UPI as a platform, we have never seen growth of this kind before,” Nikhil Kumar, who volunteered at a nonprofit organization to help develop the payments infrastructure, said in an interview.

In October, just three years after its inception, UPI had amassed 100 million users and processed over a billion transactions. It has sustained its growth since, clocking 1.25 billion transactions in March — despite one of the nation’s largest banks going through a meltdown last month.

“It all comes down to the problem it is solving. If you look at the western markets, digital payments have largely been focused on a person sending money to a merchant. UPI does that, but it also enables peer-to-peer payments and across a wide-range of apps. It’s interoperable,” said Kumar, who is now working at a startup called Setu to develop APIs to help small businesses easily accept digital payments.

Vice-president of Google’s Next Billion Users Caesar Sengupta speaks during the launch of the Google “Tez” mobile app for digital payments in New Delhi on September 18, 2017 (Photo: Getty Images via AFP PHOTO / SAJJAD HUSSAIN)

The Google Pay app has amassed over 67 million monthly active users. And the company has found the UPI pipeline so fascinating that it has recommended similar infrastructure to be built in the U.S.

In August, the Federal Reserve proposed to develop a new inter-bank 24×7 real-time gross settlement service that would support faster payments in the country. In November, Google recommended (PDF) that the U.S. Federal Reserve implement a real-time payments platform such as UPI.

“After just three years, the annual run rate of transactions flowing through UPI is about 19% of India’s Gross Domestic Product, including 800 million monthly transactions valued at approximately $19 billion,” wrote Mark Isakowitz, Google’s vice president of Government Affairs and Public Policy.

Paytm itself has amassed more than 150 million users who use it every year to make transactions. Overall, the platform has 300 million mobile wallet accounts and 55 million bank accounts, said Sharma.

Search for a business model

But despite on-boarding more than a hundred million users on their platform, payment firms are struggling to cut their losses — let alone turn a profit.

At an event in Bangalore late last year, Sajith Sivanandan, managing director and business head of Google Pay and Next Billion User Initiatives, said current local rules have forced Google Pay to operate in India without a clear business model.

Mobile payment firms never levied any fee to users as a strategy to expand their reach in the country. A recent directive from the government has now put an end to the cut they were receiving to facilitate UPI transactions between users and merchants.

Google’s Sivanandan urged the local payment bodies to “find ways for payment players to make money” to ensure every stakeholder had incentives to operate.

Paytm, which has raised more than $3 billion to date, reported a loss of $549 million in the financial year ending in March 2019.

The firm, backed by SoftBank and Alibaba, has expanded to several new businesses in recent years, including Paytm Mall, an e-commerce venture, social commerce, financial services arm Paytm Money and a movies and ticketing category.

This year, Paytm has expanded to serve merchants, launching new gadgets such as a stand that displays QR check-out codes that comes with a calculator and a battery pack, a portable speaker that provides voice confirmations of transactions and a point-of-sale machine with built-in scanner and printer.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Sharma said these devices are already garnering impressive demand from merchants. The company is offering these gadgets to them as part of a subscription service that helps it establish a steady flow of revenue.

The firm’s Money arm, which offers lending, insurance and investing services, has amassed over 3 million users. The head of Paytm Money, Pravin Jadhav, resigned from the company this week, a person familiar with the matter said. A Paytm spokeswoman declined to comment. (Indian news outlet Entrackr first reported the development.)

Flipkart’s PhonePe, another major player in India’s payments market, today serves more than 175 million users, and over 8 million merchants. Its app serves as a platform for other businesses to reach users, explained Rahul Chari, co-founder and CTO of the firm, in an interview with TechCrunch. The company is currently not taking a cut for the real estate on its app, he added.

But these startups’ expansion into new categories means that they now have to face off even more rivals, and spend more money to gain a foothold. In the social commerce category, for instance, Paytm is competing with Naspers-backed Meesho and a handful of new entrants; and heavily-backed OkCredit and KhataBook today lead the bookkeeping market.

BharatPe, which raised $75 million two months ago, is digitizing mom and pop stores and granting them working capital. And PineLabs, which has already become a unicorn, and MSwipe have flooded the market with their point-of-sale machines.

A vendor holds an Mswipe terminal, operated by M-Swipe Technologies Pvt Ltd., in an arranged photograph at a roadside stall in Bengaluru, India, on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“They have no choice. Payment is the gateway to businesses such as e-commerce and lending that you can monetize. In Paytm’s case, their earlier bet was Paytm Mall,” said Jayanth Kolla, founder and chief analyst at research firm Convergence Catalyst.

But Paytm Mall has struggled to compete with giants Amazon India and Walmart’s Flipkart. Last year, Mall pivoted to offline-to-online and online-to-offline models, wherein orders placed by customers are serviced from local stores. The company also secured about $160 million from eBay last year.

An executive who previously worked at Paytm Mall said the venture has struggled to grow because its goal-post has constantly shifted over the years. It has recently started to focus on selling fastags, a system that allows vehicle owners to swiftly pay toll fees. At least two more executives at the firm are on their way out, a person familiar with the matter said.

Kolla said the current dynamics of India’s mobile payments market, where more than 100 firms are chasing the same set of audience, is reminiscent of the telecom market in the country from more than a decade ago.

“When there were just four to five players in the telecom market, the prospect of them becoming profitable was much higher. They were scaling like crazy. They grew with the lowest ARPU in the world (at about $2) and were still profitable.

“But the moment that number grew to more than a dozen overnight, and the new players started offering more affordable plans to subscribers, that’s when profitability started to become elusive,” he said.

To top that off, the arrival of Reliance Jio, a telecom operator run by India’s richest man, in 2016 in the country with the cheapest tariff plans in the world, upended the market once again, forcing several players to leave the market, or declare bankruptcies, or consolidate.

India’s mobile payments market is now heading to a similar path, said Kolla.

If there were not enough players fighting for a slice of India’s mobile payments market that Credit Suisse estimate could reach $1 trillion by 2023, WhatsApp, the most popular app in the country with more that 400 million users, is set to roll out its mobile payments service in the country in a couple of months.

At the aforementioned press conference, Nilekani advised Sharma and other players to focus on financial services such as lending.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus outbreak that promoted New Delhi to order a three-week lockdown last month is likely going to impact the ability of millions of people to use such services.

“India has more than 100 million microfinance accounts, serviced in cash every week by gig-economy workers, who hawk vegetables on street corners or embroider saris sold in malls, among other things. Three out of four workers make a living by working casually for others or at their family firms and farms. Prolonged shutdowns will impair their ability to repay loans of 2.1 trillion rupees ($28.5 billion), putting the world’s largest microfinance industry at risk,” wrote Bloomberg columnist Andy Mukherjee.

Venture debt’s new reality: ‘The last thing we want is management walking away from a company’

By Connie Loizos

Maurice Werdegar is the longtime CEO of venture debt shop Western Technology Investment, one of the most active venture debt lenders in the U.S.

It’s also one of the older firms, having loaned out money for roughly 40 years to startups that needed to achieve certain milestones, reach profitability or wanted additional runway and didn’t necessarily want to raise a new round (especially if that next round might be at a lower valuation).

It’s a needed service and a boon for startups in good times. But when the market turns, debt can prove much trickier.

Indeed, though Werdergar understands founders well — he was once the CEO of a venture-backed restaurant chain that did really well, until they didn’t — he also has to make certain that when the market shifts, things don’t go south for WTI, as well. That can mean long, hard conversations with founders who need to renegotiate their debt payments.

Because COVID-19 is wreaking widespread economic havoc, we talked with Werdegar last week to learn what’s happening in his world and what WTI can do for clients who are now in a bind. Our chat has been edited for length.

TechCrunch: There are other venture debt players out there. How do you differ from your competitors?

Maurice Werdegar: One is we’re not publicly traded; we’re a private BDC [business development company], so we get our money from institutional investors, university endowments, nonprofits, sovereign wealth funds and groups like that. We’re a team that’s comprised primarily of former entrepreneurs; all of us have started and run our own businesses and work closely in the entrepreneurial environments. And we don’t use financial covenants, nor do we use subjective defaults.

Investors tell Indian startups to ‘prepare for the worst’ as COVID-19 uncertainty continues

By Manish Singh

Just three months after capping what was the best year for Indian startups, having raised a record $14.5 billion in 2019, they are beginning to struggle to raise new capital as prominent investors urge them to “prepare for the worst” and cut spending.

In an open letter to startup founders in India, ten global and local private equity and venture capitalist firms including Accel, Lightspeed, Sequoia Capital and Matrix Partners cautioned that the current changes to the macro environment could make it difficult for a startup to close their next fundraising deal.

The firms, which included Kalaari Capital, SAIF Partners, and Nexus Venture Partners — some of the prominent names in India to back early-stage startups — asked founders to be prepared to not see their startups’ jump in the coming rounds and have a 12-18 month runway with what they raise.

“Assumptions from bull market financings or even from a few weeks ago do not apply. Many investors will move away from thinking about ‘growth at all costs’ to ‘reasonable growth with a path to profitability.’ Adjust your business plan and messaging accordingly,” they added.

Signs are beginning to emerge that investors are losing appetite to invest in the current scenario.

Indian startups participated in 79 deals to raise $496 million in March, down from $2.86 billion that they raised across 104 deals in February and $1.24 billion they raised from 93 deals in January this year, research firm Tracxn told TechCrunch. In March last year, Indian startups had raised $2.1 billion across 153 deals, the firm said.

New Delhi ordered a complete nation-wide lockdown for its 1.3 billion people for three weeks earlier this month in a bid to curtail the spread of COVID-19.

The lockdown, as you can imagine, has severely disrupted businesses of many startups, several founders told TechCrunch.

Vivekananda Hallekere, co-founder and chief executive of mobility firm Bounce, said the firm had cut salary across the board — except for those who make less than $3,950 a year. “Founders would take a 100% pay cut. This will give us run-way of beyond 30 months. Glad we raised money when we didn’t need,” he said.

Founder of a Bangalore-based startup, which was in advanced stages to raise more than $100 million, said investors have called off the deal for now. He requested anonymity.

Food delivery firm Zomato, which raised $150 million in January, said it would secure an additional $450 million by the end of the month. Two months later, that money is yet to arrive.

Many startups are already beginning to cut salaries of their employees and let go of some people to survive an environment that aforementioned VC firms have described as “uncharted territory.”

Travel and hotel booking service Ixigo said it had cut the pay of its top management team by 60% and rest of the employees by up to 30%. MakeMyTrip, the giant in this category, also cut salaries of its top management team.

Beauty products and cosmetics retailer Nykaa on Tuesday suspended operations and informed its partners that it would not be able to pay their dues on time.

Investors cautioned startup founders to not take a “wait and watch” approach and assume that there will be a delay in their “receivables,” customers would likely ask for price cuts for services, and contracts would not close at the last minute.

“Through the lockdown most businesses could see revenues going down to almost zero and even post that the recovery curve may be a ‘U’ shaped one vs a ‘V’ shaped one,” they said.

Stocks post worst quarter since 2008 financial crisis

By Kirsten Korosec

The first quarter of 2020 ended with a whimper — with the Dow Jones Industrial Average, S&P 500 and Nasdaq posting their worst quarter in decades — as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause uncertainty and volatility across all major stock market indices.

At the beginning of the quarter, we were still basking in a decade-long bull market. The global pandemic, and the economic havoc it caused, put an end to those halcyon days. All major American indices dropped into bear-market territory March 12, after shedding the requisite 20% from recent highs.

The roller coaster continued, with equities bumping along the bottom, periodically popping up, only to fall again as the epicenter of the pandemic shifted from China to Europe and now the United States. The number of cases in the U.S. has prompted states to issue stay at home orders, putting the brakes on business as usual. As a result, unemployment benefits have skyrocketed. Last week alone, around 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits, dwarfing numbers set during the 2008-era economic meltdown.

The economic stimulus bill, known as the CARES Act, along with a series of actions taken by the Federal Reserve, have provided some lift. But the volatility continues. For the quarter, Dow Jones is down 24.08%, while the S&P is down 20.67% and Nasdaq is off 15.3%.

Here’s the breakdown of what happened today:

  • Dow Jones Industrial Average: declined 1.85%, or 413.11 to 21,914.37
  • S&P 500: slid 1.61%, or 42.18, to 2,584.47
  • Nasdaq Composite: fell 0.95%, or 74.05, to 7,700.10

All sectors were down today, with the exception of the energy sector, which saw a lift after being battered for weeks. Meanwhile, investors have fled equities for treasuries, pushing yields down. Case in point: U.S. 10-year yields are down 64% in the first quarter.

SaaS shares fell more than most tech equity in today’s trading, with the Bessemer cloud index off a little over 2.5%. The index, which tracks a basket of SaaS and cloud shares, is off around 20% from its recent highs. Shares of modern software companies are therefore still technically in a bear market, though just. If recent gains hold, the index will have made up around 10% of its lost ground since recent lows.

Wrapping on cryptocurrencies as we close the book on the quarter, bitcoin posted a net loss for the period. It’s worth just over $6,400 as we write this post.

What a quarter. What a quarter of surprises and turmoil and cut expectations and downgraded hope. Here’s to a better Q2, if we can manage.

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500 Startups moves to rolling admissions instead of cohorts

By Jonathan Shieber

500 Startups is scrapping its cohort model for accelerating companies and moving to a rolling admissions process, the accelerator said during its latest demo day.

One of the progenitors of the accelerator model in the US along with Techstars and Y Combinator, 500 has been a cornerstone of the early-stage company building platform. The move to a rolling admissions mirrors an approach taken by other accelerator programs including MuckerLab, the wildly successful Los Angeles-based early stage program.

“Demo is changing the way it runs its accelerator to be rolling recruitment,” said Aaron Blumenthal, a 500 Startups venture partner. “It will be making investment decisions year round instead of twice a year. Demo Days will still happen twice a year, founders can pick which Demo Day they want to be a part of.”

Given the profusion of accelerator programs globally, the move to a rolling admissions schedule likely makes sense, giving entrepreneurs more flexibility around when and how they join.

The decision from 500 follows other significant changes from Y Combinator, which is moving to a virtual model for its own accelerator program — a decision influenced by the global response to the COVID-19 epidemic which has disrupted economies and threatened lives globally.

Blumenthal explained the switch in a blog post. Writing:

In a business where timing is everything, I realized the current accelerator model was serving an injustice to founders. That’s why shortly after I was put in charge of our flagship accelerator, I knew it was time to do exactly what we tell our founders to do every day—to innovate. So, after shepherding 26 batches of thousands of founders over the past 10 years, 500 is shaking things up.

We’re proud to announce that we’ve designed an entirely new platform that’s flexible and tailored to our founders’ timing and needs—not our own. Our goal is to move away from the one-size-fits-all approach of the past, and towards delivering relevant content, based on each founders’ growth stage and needs, precisely when they’re ready for it.

This new flexible approach reinforces our continued commitment to invest in founders from all over the world. We realize it’s not always feasible for every founder to move to San Francisco for four months at the drop of a hat, and we want to accommodate for that.

You can expect to see our new model in action in the near future. After we wrap up Batch 26’s Demo Day on March 26th, our accelerator applications will open indefinitely. We’ll begin accepting founders to our program on a continuous rolling basis, with more flexibility on start and end dates. That means no more application deadlines, and no more missing out on companies because the timing isn’t right. There will still be two demo days per year and plenty of opportunities to take advantage of the expertise the entire 500 community has to offer — all that changes is our flexibility to invest in companies and founders we believe in and their ability to join our programming when it’s the right time for them.

TechCrunch has covered 500’s current batch of startups here, and will have a post up shortly about our favorites from its demo day.

Financial markets may be sliding globally, but interest in stock trading apps soars

By Jonathan Shieber

The stock markets are having a very rough month, but interest in stock trading apps is skyrocketing, according to data from industry trackers and companies themselves.

Across the board from speculative stock trading apps from startups like Robinhood to savings-focused investment applications like Acorns and established companies like Etrade, would-be investors are turning to trading even as the markets are at their most volatile.

Following precipitous declines over the past week, stocks were roaring back today, with major market indices posting their biggest gains since the financial crisis of 2008.

Over the same period the stock trading startup, Robinhood, which had suffered early outages as the markets began their wild swings, recorded some of its biggest growth numbers of the year.

According to data supplied by Robinhood, the company has already seen roughly ten times the net deposits for the month versus its monthly average in the fourth quarter of 2019. Daily trading volume is also up more than three times the monthly trading volumes the company recorded in the fourth quarter of 2019.

App Annie data over the period indicates that downloads haven’t slowed since Robinhood’s early month outages either.

Robinhood may be one beneficiary of the markets’ movement, but it’s hardly the only one.

New customer growth at Acorns hit a new high of 9,800 signups last Thursday — a day that stock markets recorded their second-worst day of trading since 1987.  That 9,800 sign up figure is about 45 percent more than the company normally records. In total, the company recently hit a milestone of 7 million signups.

That surge in interest shows that far from being scared off from the market, users of the tradings apps are showing some confidence in the longterm health of the markets.

“The market is down 30 percent,” said Noah Kerner, the chief executive officer of Acorns. “It’s on sale.”

Kerner said that now is the time when investors may see the biggest gains from getting into the market. “Every downturn in history has ended in an upturn,” Kerner said. Pulling your money out of the market now means you lock in losses. Last time I checked, nobody likes losses.”

The emphasis that President Trump places on the markets may also be playing a role in increasing awareness among everyday Americans, according to Kerner.

“The President and Administration have brought a lot of focus on economics and the markets more generally. You have a lot of products in fintech, especially ours, that have prioritized financial education — and spreading information in simple, digestible ways,” he said. “The message is out there that the market is on sale and people are engaging with it.”

Some of the largest names in stock trading are also enjoying new boosts in downloads and activity. Etrade, for instance, is showing a surge of interest from new investors, at least according to App Annie data.

 

Revolut launches its neobank in the US

By Romain Dillet

European fintech startup Revolut is launching its app and service in the U.S. Starting today, anybody can sign up and get a Revolut debit card. In the U.S., Revolut has partnered with Metropolitan Commercial Bank for the banking infrastructure — deposits are FDIC insured up to $250,000.

In just a few years, Revolut has managed to attract over 10 million customers by building a financial hub that lets you spend, send, receive and manage money from a single app. The company recently raised a $500 million funding round, valuing the company at $5.5 billion.

But the U.S. has been watching from the sidelines. Tens of thousands of customers have signed up to the waiting list and they’ll now be able to access all of Revolut’s core features.

Like competing challenger banks, such as Chime and N26, Revolut lets you open an account from your phone. After downloading the app, you enter personal details and send a few official documents to comply with know-your-customer regulation.

After that, you get U.S. account details and you can instantly top up your account with a bank transfer or a card transfer. A few days later, you also receive a physical debit card. You can also generate a virtual debit card from the app.

Revolut lets you control your debit card from the app directly. You can receive notifications every time you make a transaction. You can freeze and unfreeze your card, set some limits and restrict some feature, such as online payments or ATM withdrawals.

One of Revolut’s key features is that you can convert from one currency to another at a low fee — sometimes without any markup for popular currencies and small transactions (more details on foreign exchange fees here). You can hold foreign currencies in your Revolut account or send money to another Revolut user or a bank account in another country. Revolut also gives you local banking details to receive EUR or GBP.

In the U.S., Revolut offers the ability to receive your salary two days in advance if you share your Revolut banking details with your employer.

Revolut offers a ton of additional features in Europe, but the company is starting with this basic feature set in the U.S. You can expect more features in the future, such as the ability to purchase cryptocurrencies and invest on the stock market.

In Europe, Revolut also offers insurance products through premium monthly subscriptions, mobile phone insurance, savings accounts, credit, rewards and more. Many of those features require partnerships with third-party companies. But it gives you an idea of Revolut’s roadmap in the U.S.

Activist investor Starboard Value taking three Box board seats as involvement deepens

By Ron Miller

When activist investors Starboard Value took a 7.5% stake in Box last September, there was reasonable speculation that it would begin to try and push an agenda, as activist investors tend to do. While the firm has been quiet to this point, today Box announced that Starboard was adding three members to the 9 member Box board.

At the same time, two long-time Box investors and allies, Rory O’Driscoll from Scale Venture Partners and Josh Stein from DFJ, will be retiring from the board and not seeking reelection at the annual stockholder’s meeting in June.

O’Driscoll involvement with the company dates back a decade, while Stein has been with the company 14 years, from its very earliest days, and has been a big supporter from almost the beginning of the company.

For starters, Jack Lazar, whose credentials including being chief financial officer at GoPro and Atheros Communications, is joining the board immediately. A second new board member from a list to be agreed upon by Box and Starboard will also be joining immediately.

Finally, a third member will be selected by the newly constituted board in June, giving Starboard three friendly votes and the ability to push the Box agenda in a significant way.

At the time it announced it was taking a stake in Box, Starboard telegraphed that it could be doing something like this. Here’s what it had to say in its filing at the time:

“Depending on various factors including, without limitation, the Issuer’s financial position and investment strategy, the price levels of the Shares, conditions in the securities markets and general economic and industry conditions, the Reporting Persons may in the future take such actions with respect to their investment in the Issuer as they deem appropriate including, without limitation, engaging in communications with management and the Board of Directors of the Issuer, engaging in discussions with stockholders of the Issuer or other third parties about the Issuer and the [Starboard’s] investment, including potential business combinations or dispositions involving the Issuer or certain of its businesses, making recommendations or proposals to the Issuer concerning changes to the capitalization, ownership structure, board structure (including board composition), potential business combinations or dispositions involving the Issuer or certain of its businesses, or suggestions for improving the Issuer’s financial and/or operational performance, purchasing additional Shares, selling some or all of their Shares, engaging in short selling of or any hedging or similar transaction with respect to the Shares…”

Box CEO Aaron Levie appeared at TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise, the week this news about Starboard broke, and he was careful in how he discussed a possible relationship with the firm. “Well I think in their statement actually they really just identified that they think there’s upside in the stock. It’s still very early in the conversations and process, but again we’re super collaborative in these types of situations. We want to work with all of our investors and I think that’ll be the same here,” Levie told us at the time.

Now, the company has no choice, but to work more collaboratively with Starboard as it takes a much more meaningful role on the company board. What impact this will have in the long run is hard to say, but surely significant changes are likely on the way.

Stocks fall again on continued coronavirus worries

By Jonathan Shieber

Is it good news to say that stocks fell less sharply than they had on previous days?

That’s the bright side of another turbulent trading day across the Nasdaq and New York Stock Exchange. The major indices were down again — although their declines were less severe than they had been during the week.

Investors appeared to shake off positive labor statistics (the U.S. added 273,000 jobs, ahead of expectations), as the expanding number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. and lack of a coordinated response from the Trump Administration took their toll on investor confidence that the impact on the economy would be minimal.

With that said, things could have been worse?

The Dow fell 256.50 points, or just under 1%, to close at 25,864.78, while the S&P stumbled 51.57 points, or 1.7%, to close at 2,972.37 while the Nasdaq slid 1.8%, or 162.98 to close at 8,575.62. The benchmark indices are in the territory of a market correction — hovering at around a 10% loss already on the year.

For startups, it’s important to note that these market pressures can have implications for their businesses. Jittery buyers may be inclined to curb spending and save to conserve cash on their own balance sheets; consumers may rethink priorities and focus on essential purchases as they tighten their own belts.

Sequoia Capital warned in a blog post yesterday that things may change as time rolls along and the global economy stutters.

Here’s their take:

  • Drop in business activity. Some companies have seen their growth rates drop sharply between December and February. Several companies that were on track are now at risk of missing their Q1–2020 plans as the effects of the virus ripple wider.
  • Supply chain disruptions. The unprecedented lockdown in China is directly impacting global supply chains. Hardware, direct-to-consumer, and retailing companies may need to find alternative suppliers. Pure software companies are less exposed to supply chain disruptions, but remain at risk due to cascading economic effects.
  • Curtailment of travel and canceled meetings. Many companies have banned all “non-essential” travel and some have banned all international travel. While travel companies are directly impacted, all companies that depend on in-person meetings to conduct sales, business development, or partnership discussions are being affected.

This isn’t the first time that one of the country’s most successful venture capital firms has warned its portfolio about the possibility of an economic crisis. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis the firm issued an infamous slide deck warning “RIP Good Times”.

For financial markets the funeral bells are already tolling in the early part of the year. Now, a reckoning may be coming for startups that were on the edge of the bubble.

India’s Yes Bank breakdown disrupts Walmart’s PhonePe among a dozen other services

By Manish Singh

Tens of millions of merchants and users in India are struggling to make online transactions and use some of their popular services after the nation’s central bank seized control of Yes Bank, the fourth largest lender in the country.

The emergency takeover of the private sector bank has disrupted several financial startups that rely on it for facilitating services such as processing QR codes, and their point-of-sale terminals as well as transactions of UPI-based payments.

Bangalore-based PhonePe, owned by e-commerce giant Walmart, has been inaccessible to tens of millions of its customers since Thursday evening (local time). The startup said in a statement that it was working to restore its services, and has solved some of the issues for its merchant partners.

“We sincerely regret the long outage. Our partner bank Yes Bank was placed under moratorium by RBI. Entire team’s been working all night to get services back up as soon as possible,” said Sameer Nigam, founder and chief executive officer of PhonePe, which is used by more than 175 million users.

In a tweet, Nigam said the startup had multiple redundancies in place, but “never imagined [that] the bank itself would go totally dark like this. Lesson learnt in the hardest possible way. But we’ll come out stronger and more robust.”

BharatPe, a startup that helps merchants, was also facing outage, some merchants said. Its problems were limited, however, as it also relies on ICICI Bank, another large private sector bank in the country.

Udaan, a Bangalore-headquartered business-to-business e-commerce platform, said it had asked buyers and sellers on its platform to not use the startup’s QR code service, which is powered by Yes Bank.

Tens of thousands of users in India have reported issues accessing another dozen of popular services.

New Delhi took over Yes Bank midnight on Thursday, after the Reserve Bank of India said it had no alternative but to implement measures to replace the private sector firm’s board and temporarily restrict withdrawals and suspend all other transactions for the next 30 days. Yes Bank has struggled for months to raise capital to improve its financials.

According to NPCI, Yes Bank is the technology banking partner for ticketing platforms Cleartrip, MakeMyTrip, and RedBus, telecom operator Airtel, food-delivery startup Swiggy, movie ticketing business BookMyShow and PVR, Microsoft’s chat service Kaizala, as well as several other Flipkart properties including the marquee service, fashion platforms Jabong, and Myntra.

Some of these aforementioned services are only partially impacted as they work with a range of partners to support many payment options for their customers. Most impacted customers are those who are attempting to use UPI payments option, an infrastructure built by a collation of banks and used by more than 100 million users, on these platforms are hitting the wall.

Twitter CEO’s weak argument why investors shouldn’t fire him

By Josh Constine

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey might not spend six months a year in Africa, claims the real product development is under the hood, and gives an excuse for deleting Vine before it could become TikTok. Today he tweeted, via Twitter’s investor relations account, a multi-pronged defense of his leadership and the company’s progress.

The proclamations come as notorious activist investor Elliott Management prepares to pressure Twitter into a slew of reforms, potentially including replacing Dorsey with a new CEO, Bloomberg reported last week. Sources confirmed to TechCrunch that Elliott has taken a 4% to 5% stake in Twitter. Elliott has previously bullied eBay, AT&T, and othe major corporations into making changes and triggered CEO departures.

…Focusing on one job and increasing accountability has made a huge difference for us. One of our core jobs is to keep people informed. We want to be a service that people turn to… to see what’s happening, to be a credible source that people learn from.

— Twitter Investor Relations (@TwitterIR) March 5, 2020

Specifically, Elliott is seeking change because of Twitter’s weak market performance, which as of last month had fallen 6.2% since July 2015 while Facebook had grown 121%. The corporate raider reportedly takes issue with Dorsey also running fintech giant Square, and having planned to spend up to six months a year in Africa. Dorsey tweeted that “Africa will define the future (especially the bitcoin one!)”, despite cryptocurrency having little to do with Twitter.

Rapid executive turnover is another sore spot. Finally, Twitter is seen as moving glacially slow on product development, with little about its core service changing in the past five years beyond a move from 140 to 280 characters per tweet. Competing social apps like Facebook and Snapchat have made landmark acquisitions and launched significant new products like Marketplace, Stories, and Discover.

Dorsey spoke today at the Morgan Stanley investor conference, though apparently didn’t field questions about Elliott’s incursion. The CEO did take to his platform to lay out an argument for why Twitter is doing better than it looks, though without mentioning the activist investor directly. That type of response without mentioning to whom it’s directed, is popularly known as a subtweet. Here’s what he outlined:

On democracy: Twitter has prioritized healthy conversation and now “the #1 initiative is the integrity of the conversation around the elections” around the world, which it’s learning from. It’s now using humans and machine learning to weed out misinformation, yet Twitter still hasn’t rolled out labels on false news despite Facebook launching them in late 2016.

On revenue: Twitter expects to complete a rebuild of its core ad server in the first half of 2020, and it’s improving the experience of mobile app install ads so it can court more performance ad dollars. This comes seven years late to Facebook’s big push around app install ads.

On shutting down products: Dorsey claims that “5 years ago we had to do a really hard reset and that takes time to build from… we had been a company that was trying to do too many things…” But was it? Other than Moments, which largely flopped, and the move to the algorithmic feed ranking, Twitter sure didn’t seem to be doing too much and was already being criticized for slow product evolution as it tried to avoid disturbing its most hardcore users.

On stagnanation: “Some people talk about the slow pace of development at Twitter. The expectation is to see surface level changes, but the most impactful changes are happening below the surface” Dorsey claims, citing using machine learning to improve feed  and notification relevance

Yet it seems telling that Twitter suddenly announced yesterday that it was testing Instagram Stories-esque feature Fleets in Brazil. No launch event. No US beta. No indication of when it might roll out elsewhere. It seems like hasty and suspiciously convenient timing for a reveal that might convince investors it is actually building new things.

On talent: Twitter is apparently hiring top engineers “that maybe we couldn’t get 3 years ago”. 2017 was also Twitter’s share price low point of $14 compared to $34 today, so it’s not much of an accomplishment that hiring is easier now. Dorsey claims that “Engineering is my main focus. Everything else follows from that.” Yet it’s been years since fail whales were prevalent, and the core concern now is that there’s not enough to do on Twitter, rather than what it does offer doesn’t function well.

On Jack himself: Dorsey says he should have added more context “about my intention to spend a few months in Africa this year”, including its growing population that’s still getting online. Yet the “Huge opportunity especially for young people to join Twitter” seemed far from his mind as he focused on how crypto trading was driving adoption of Square’s Cash App

“I need to reevaluate” the plan to work from Africa “in light of COVID-19 and everything else going on”. That makes coronavirus a nice scapegoat for the decision while the phrase “everything else” is doing some very heavy lifting in the face of Elliott’s activist investing.

Photographer: Cole Burston/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On fighting harassment: Nothing. The fact that Twitter’s most severe ongoing problem doesn’t even get a mention should clue you in to how many troubles have stacked up in front of Dorsey

Running Twitter is a big job. So big it’s seen a slew of leaders ranging from founders like Ev Williams to hired guns like Dick Costolo peel off after mediocre performance. If Dorsey wants to stay CEO, that should be his full-time, work-from-headquarters gig.

This isn’t just another business. Twitter is a crucial communications utility for the world. Its absence of innovation, failure to defend vulnerable users, and an inability to deliver financially has massive repercussions for society. It means Twitter hasn’t had the products or kept the users to earn the profits to be able to invest in solving its problems. Making Twitter live up to its potential is no sidehustle.

Female-founded startups landed more deals globally in 2019 than ever before

By Natasha Mascarenhas

We all know the disruptive stories of female-founded startups like Glossier and ezCater. And we also know how those success stories belie the much harder time thousands of other women entrepreneurs have when it comes to raising capital.

That’s why it’s so important to have historical data and a window into how these things may be changing, so that the industry can consistently benchmark its successes and failures in an attempt to correct historical inequities in the ways venture firms distributed capital. 

Looking at the latest numbers from All Raise and Pitchbook, it’s clear that for every step forward, the industry still has a long way to go. 

In 2019, female-founded startups across the world landed a record 4,399 investments, according to data from All Raise, a nonprofit organization that wants to increase the diversity in the venture capital industry, and Pitchbook data.

While deal count has increased, dollars raised declined in 2019 sliding to $37.7 billion from $49.9 billion in 2018. It’s worth noting that 2018 included an outsized round from Ant Financial, which may have skewed dollar totals. It’s also worth pointing out that over the same period venture capital firms in the U.S. alone invested more than $130 billion into startup companies

For what it’s worth, 2019 broke all kinds of records. All Raise and Pitchbook’s data shows that 2019, compared to a decade ago, had a 1408% increase in deal value. Additionally, according to Crunchbase data, female-founded unicorns, companies valued at over $1 billion, were being born at an unprecedented rate in 2019. While a female-founded unicorn is still rare, the proliferation is notable, and goes well with one of All Raise’s goals: to increase investment in female-founded companies.

However, All Raise’s latest data doesn’t touch on one of its goals, which is to double the percentage of female investment partners at tech VC firms over the next 10 years. Last month, Pam Kostka, the CEO of All Raise, wrote a Medium blog on how more women became VC partners than ever before in 2019. All Raise claimed major US firms added 52 women partners in 2019. Last month, Recode said those numbers might be “overstating the progress” due to the different definitions of partner. For example, some female partners may have the title of partner, but not the decision-making capabilities. 

Bottom line: the numbers are important, but the nuance within them is more telling, especially when it comes to diversity. For proof, look as far as Kostka’s headline: “More Women Became VC Partners Than Ever Before In 2019 But 65% of Venture Firms Still Have Zero Female Partners.” 

Frontline Ventures raises new $80M fund focused on bringing US firms to Europe

By Mike Butcher

Frontline Ventures, based in Dublin and London, has announced a new $80 million fund designed to assist U.S. tech companies expanding into Europe.

The new Frontline X fund — which means the firm now has $200 million under management — focuses mainly on growth-stage B2B companies and invests up to $5 million per company alongside lead investors in later-stage rounds. Frontline X will be led by partners Stephen McIntyre and Brennan O’Donnell.

The firm believes that flawed go-to-market strategies and weak local talent networks means that U.S. companies tend to lose too much money in foregone revenue when they expand into Europe, and the team is aiming to address this.

Ireland has been a crucial landing point, particularly for U.S. tech companies expanding into Europe, in part because of its low tax regime. No doubt, Irish investors are now realizing that with the U.K. leaving the EU, both Dublin and Ireland will become an even more attractive proposition.

Frontline has backed a number of successful companies in Seed Funds I and II, including Britebill (acquired by Amdocs), Logentries (acquired by Rapid7) and Orchestrate (acquired by CenturyLink) . Most recently, Frontline was an early investor in Pointy, which was acquired by Google last month.

Prior to joining Frontline, McIntyre setup Twitter’s European headquarters as the vice president of EMEA, and built its EMEA business. Prior to that he ran a substantial part of Google’s ads business.

O’Donnell joins Frontline X as a partner in San Francisco. He previously held multiple go-to-market leadership roles at Google in the U.S. and Europe and executive roles at Yammer, SurveyMonkey, Euclid and Airtable.

In a statement McIntyre said: “We’ve benchmarked the best of B2B software and seen that, by the time a company goes public, 30% of its revenue should be coming from Europe. But even the biggest names in tech fail to get there because of avoidable mistakes when they land. We’ve learned about international expansion the hard way as operators. The good news is that most of these problems are known and solvable.”

Frontline X already invested in the Series B of TripActions, a company that has gone on to raise from Andreessen Horowitz at a $4 billion valuation; People.ai’s $100 million Series C, together with Lightspeed, Andreessen Horowitz and ICONIQ; and Clearbanc’s $50 million Series B, with Emergence and Highland. The VC has also backed more than 60 companies with recent investments, including TeachCloud, Siren, Cloudsmith and Sweepr.

Ariel Cohen, the CEO of TripActions, commented that Frontline was “a crucial source of go-to-market advice.”

South Korea passes one of the world’s first comprehensive cryptocurrency laws

By Danny Crichton

The South Korean National Assembly passed new legislation today that will provide a framework for the regulation and legalization of cryptocurrencies and crypto exchanges.

In a unanimous vote during a special session of the legislature convened amidst the country’s worsening novel coronavirus situation, the representatives passed an amendment to the country’s financial services laws that would authorize Korea’s financial regulators to effectively oversee the nascent industry and develop rules around anti-money laundering among other processes.

South Korea has been on the forefront of the cryptocurrency boom and bust over the past few years, and it’s one of the few countries with wide-scale adoption of the technology. Surveys at the height of the crypto craze in 2017 showed that more than a third of the country’s workers were active investors in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Ethereum, and other systems. The country’s largest city Seoul led a government initiative to introduce its own cryptocurrency — S-coin — that was designed to capture the zeitgeist of the frenzy.

During that period, South Korea’s government moved quickly to push new regulations and clamp down on the spread of blockchain, which caused large gyrations in the price of Bitcoin as investors observed how the country’s investors would react.

Today’s vote in the legislature just a few years later is a relatively quick turnaround for regulators, and shows the increasing acceptance of blockchain and more specifically cryptocurrencies in the context of financial services both locally and across the world. One of the country’s largest technology companies, Kakao, has continued to invest in blockchain initiatives, and the local ecosystem remains relatively robust in innovation in the sector.

The passage of the cryptocurrency legislation is a victory for the Korean startup ecosystem, but other major questions remain about the sector.

Among the most heated topics today is the fate of Tada (타다), the indigenous ride-hailing startup that competes with the traditional and regulated taxi industry. Since the company’s launch in late 2018, the company has faced constant threats of shut down by regulators, before a reprieve a few weeks ago by the country’s top constitutional court approved its operations.

Yet, in the same special session that saw the cryptocurrency bill pass, the National Assembly a day ago approved in committee a bill that would effectively ban Tada and mandate that it receive an operating license from the government. Expect further action on Tada in the weeks ahead.

As for the cryptocurrency law, it’s passage and presumed signing by South Korean president Moon Jae-in starts a months-long rulemaking process that will also provide time for existing startups and exchanges to transition into the law’s new regulatory apparatus.

Korea’s parliamentary elections are coming up in just a few weeks on April 15th, and while the situation around the novel coronavirus is taking a lion’s share of the local headlines, votes on tech measures are a way for representatives to position themselves on other salient issues before voter’s decide.

Citing Star Wars, Kleiner Perkins closes a $700M fund for early-stage companies

By Natasha Mascarenhas

After going “back to the future” with a $600 million fund last year, VC firm Kleiner Perkins is aiming for some “returns of the Jedi” with its freshest (and refocused) fund. 

With Star Wars references on the forefront in its announcement, the firm today announced that it has closed its largest fund to date: KP 19, a $700 million venture fund to invest in early-stage startups. Per the firm, it will invest in startups tackling issues like security, digital identity and the future of work. 

KP 19 is the second season of KP in a post-Mary Meeker world. When the legendary investor departed KP in September 2018, the firm refocused from late stage to early stage and brought on a crop of new talent. 

In 14 months, it spent KP 18, a $600 million fund, across 34 investments (sans follow-up money reserved), according to general partner Ilya Fushman. Of those 34 investments, 30 were Series A and seed-stage companies.

“One fun fact — we did about 18 competitive Series A’s in 2018,” Fushman told TechCrunch. “And we wrote 18 term sheets for that, so we have a 100 percent win rate.”

Despite the overcrowding of the early-stage market, Fushman pointed to KP’s legacy, reputation and focus on technical talent as key reasons startups choose the firm. Since KP pivoted to early stage, it has brought on at least three team members to bolster how it can help companies from business development to communications.

With more early-stage investment comes more board seats than Kleiner Perkins’ traditional past is used to. For example, Monica Desai, who joined Kleiner from Blockchain, is currently on the board of Bison Trails, Loom, Pillar, Propel and Nova Credit.

“Taking on a board role is what we like to do,” Fushman said. “And obviously as companies raise follow-on funding, you get to partner with other great investors who join and help you share the load. Overall we feel pretty good about load across the partnership.” 

It’s too soon to gauge how KP 18’s portfolio is performing or whether KP’s return to early stage will pay off, but the close of KP 19 gives us some hints. 

KP 19 will focus on consumer, healthcare, enterprise, hardware, fintech infrastructure and consumer. The fund looks to follow a two- to three-year investment cycle, and Fushman said the firm plans to invest across 34 to 35 companies. Perhaps most notably, Fushman and Desai both said the same thing: not much is changing. 

“We’re heading into interesting times so it’ll be interesting to see where macro environment trends, and what that means for pace, check size, and for the kinds of businesses that will be built for the next phase,” Fushman said. “But overall, as boring as it sounds, it’s really just the same old.”

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