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All the reasons why you should launch a credit or debit card

By Ryan Lawler

Over the previous two or three years we’ve seen an explosion of new debit and credit card products come to market from consumer and B2B fintech startups, as well as companies that we might not traditionally think of as players in the financial services industry.

On the consumer side, that means companies like Venmo or PayPal offering debit cards as a new way for users to spend funds in their accounts. In the B2B space, the availability of corporate card issuing by startups like Brex and Ramp has ushered in new expense and spend management options. And then there is the growth of branded credit and debit cards among brands and sports teams.

But if your company somehow hasn’t yet found its way to launch a debit or credit card, we have good news: It’s easier than ever to do so and there’s actual money to be made. Just know that if you do, you’ve got plenty of competition and that actual customer usage will probably depend on how sticky your service is and how valuable the rewards are that you offer to your most active users.

To learn more about launching a card product, TechCrunch spoke with executives from Marqeta, Expensify, Synctera and Cardless about the pros and cons of launching a card product. So without further ado, here are all the reasons you should think about doing so, and one big reason why you might not want to.

Because it’s (relatively) easy

Probably the biggest reason we’ve seen so many new fintech and non-fintech companies rush to offer debit and credit cards to customers is simply that it’s easier than ever for them to do so. The launch and success of businesses like Marqeta has made card issuance by API developer friendly, which lowered the barrier to entry significantly over the last half-decade.

“The reason why this is happening is because the ‘fintech 1.0 infrastructure’ has succeeded,” Salman Syed, Marqeta’s SVP and GM of North America, said. “When you’ve got companies like [ours] out there, it’s just gotten a lot easier to be able to put a card product out.”

While noting that there have been good options for card issuance and payment processing for at least the last five or six years, Expensify Chief Operating Officer Anu Muralidharan said that a proliferation of technical resources for other pieces of fintech infrastructure has made the process of greenlighting a card offering much easier over the years.

PayEm comes out of stealth with $27M and its answer to the expense report

By Christine Hall

Itamar Jobani was a software developer working for a medical company and “hated that time of the month” when he had to use the company’s chosen reimbursement tool.

“It was full of friction and as part of the company’s wellness team, I felt an urge to take care of the employee experience and find a better tool,” Jobani told TechCrunch. “I looked for something, but didn’t find it, so I tried to build it myself.”

What resulted was PayEm, an Israeli company he founded with Omer Rimoch in 2019 to be a spend and procurement platform for high-growth and multinational organizations. Today, it announced $27 million in funding that includes $7 million in seed funding, led by Pitango First and NFX, with participation by LocalGlobe and Fresh Fund, as well as $20 million in Series A funding led by Glilot+.

The company’s technology automates the reimbursement, procurement, accounts payable and credit card workflows to manage all of the requests and invoices, while also creating bills and sending payments to over 200 territories in 130 currencies.

It gives company finance teams a real-time look at what items employees are asking for funds to buy, and what is actually being spent. For example, teams can submit a request and go through an approval flow that can be customized with purchasing codes tied to a description of the transaction. At the same time, all transactions are continuously reconciled versus having to spend hours at the end of the month going through paperwork.

“Organizations are running in a more democratized way with teams buying things on behalf of the organization,” Jobani said. “We built a platform to cater to those needs, so it’s like a disbursement platform instead of a finance team always being in charge.”

The global B2B payments market is valued at $120 trillion annually and is expected to reach $200 trillion by 2028, according to payment industry newsletter Nilson Report. PayEm is among many B2B payments startups attracting venture capital — for example, last month, Nium announced a $200 million in Series D funding at a $1 billion valuation. Paystand raised $50 million in Series C funding to make B2B payments cashless, while Dwolla raised $21 million for its API that allows companies to build and facilitate fast payments.

Meanwhile, PayEm itself saw accelerated growth in the second quarter of 2021, including increasing its transaction volume by four times over the previous quarter and generating millions of dollars in revenue. It now boasts a list of hundreds of customers like Fiverr, JFrog and Next Insurance. It also launched new features like the ability to create corporate cards.

The company, which also has an office in New York, has 40 employees currently, and the new funds will enable the company to triple its headcount, focusing on hiring in the United States, and to bring additional features and payment capabilities to market.

“Each person can have a budget and a time frame for making the purchase, while accounting still feels in control,” Jobani added. “Everyone now has the full context and the right budget line item.”

Olsam raises $165M to buy up and scale consumer and B2B Amazon Marketplace sellers

By Ingrid Lunden

On the heels of Heroes announcing a $200 million raise earlier today, to double down on buying and scaling third-party Amazon Marketplace sellers, another startup out of London aiming to do the same is announcing some significant funding of its own. Olsam, a roll-up play that is buying up both consumer and B2B merchants selling on Amazon by way of Amazon’s FBA fulfillment program, has closed $165 million — a combination of equity and debt that it will be using to fuel its M&A strategy, as well as continue building out its tech platform and to hire more talent.

Apeiron Investment Group — an investment firm started by German entrepreneur Christian Angermayer (known first for biopharmaceuticals, then investing and crypto, including playing a role in SoftBank investing in Wirecard) — led the Series A equity round, with Elevat3 Capital (another Angermayer firm that has a strategic partnership with Founders Fund and Peter Thiel) also participating. North Wall Capital was behind the debt portion of the deal. We have asked and Olsam is only disclosing the full amount raised, not the amount that was raised in equity versus debt. Valuation is also not being disclosed.

Being an Amazon roll-up startup from London that happens to be announcing a fundraise today is not the only thing that Olsam has in common with Heroes. Like Heroes, Olsam is also founded by brothers.

Sam Horbye previously spent years working at Amazon, including building and managing the company’s Business Marketplace (the B2B version of the consumer Marketplace); while co-founder Ollie Horbye had years of experience in strategic consulting and financial services.

Between them, they had also built and sold previous marketplace businesses, and they believe that this collective experience gives Olsam — a portmanteau of their names, “Ollie” and “Sam” — a leg up when it comes to building relationships with merchants; identifying quality products (versus the vast seas of search results that often feel like they are selling the same inexpensive junk as each other); and understanding merchants’ challenges and opportunities, and building relationships with Amazon and understanding how the merchant ecosystem fits into the e-commerce giant’s wider strategy.

Olsam is also taking a slightly different approach when it comes to target companies, by focusing not just on the usual consumer play, but also on merchants selling to businesses. B2B selling is currently one of the fastest-growing segments in Amazon’s Marketplace, and it is also one of the more overlooked by consumers.”It’s flying under the radar,” Ollie said.

“The B2B opportunity is very exciting,” Sam added. “A growing number of merchants are selling office supplies or more random products to the B2B customer.”

Estimates vary when it comes to how many merchants there are selling on Amazon’s Marketplace globally, ranging anywhere from 6 million to nearly 10 million. Altogether those merchants generated $300 million in sales (gross merchandise value), and its growing by 50% each year at the moment.

And consolidating sellers — in order to achieve better economies of scale around supply chains, marketing tools and analytics, and more — is also big business. Olsam estimates that some $7 billion has been spent cumulatively on acquiring these businesses, and there are more out there: Olsam estimates that there are some 3,000 businesses in the UK alone making more than $1 million each in sales on Amazon’s platform.

(And to be clear, there are a number of other roll-up startups beyond Heroes also eyeing up that opportunity. Raising hundreds of millions of dollars in aggregate,  others have made moves this year include Suma Brands ($150 million); Elevate Brands ($250 million); Perch ($775 million); factory14 ($200 million); Thrasio (currently probably the biggest of them all in terms of reach and money raised and ambitions), HeydayThe Razor GroupBrandedSellerXBerlin Brands Group (X2), Benitago, Latin America’s Valoreo and Rainforest and Una Brands out of Asia.)

“The senior team behind Olsam is what makes this business truly unique,” said Angermayer in a statement. “Having all been successful in building and selling their own brands within the market and having worked for Amazon in their marketplace team – their understanding of this space is exceptional.”

Israel’s maturing fintech ecosystem may soon create global disruptors

By Annie Siebert
Adi Levanon Contributor
Adi Levanon has been an early-stage VC for nearly a decade, with a strong focus on fintech investments since 2015, both in the U.S. and Israel. Currently, she is the Tel Aviv-based investor at Flint Capital.

“Even with its vast local talent, it seems Israel still has many hurdles to overcome in order to become a global fintech hub. [ … ] Having that said, I don’t believe any of these obstacles will prevent Israel from generating disruptive global fintech startups that will become game-changing businesses.”

I wrote that back in 2018, when I was determined to answer whether Israel had the potential to become a global fintech hub. Suffice to say, this prediction from three years ago has become a reality.

In 2019, Israeli fintech startups raised over $1.8 billion; in 2020, they were said to have raised $1.48 billion despite the pandemic. Just in the first quarter of 2021, Israeli fintech startups raised $1.1 billion, according to IVC Research Center and Meitar Law Offices.

It’s then no surprise that Israel now boasts over a dozen fintech unicorns in sectors such as payments, insurtech, lending, banking and more, some of which reached the desired status just in the beginning of 2021 —  like Melio and Papaya Global, which raised $110 million and $100 million, respectively.

Over the years I’ve been fortunate to invest (both as a venture capitalist and personally) in successful early-stage fintech companies in the U.S., Israel and emerging markets  —  Alloy, Eave, MoneyLion, Migo, Unit, AcroCharge and more.

The major shifts and growth of fintech globally over these years has been largely due to advanced AI-based technologies, heightened regulatory scrutiny, a more innovative and adaptive approach among financial institutions to build partnerships with fintechs, and, of course, the COVID pandemic, which forced consumers to transact digitally.

The pandemic pushed fintechs to become essential for business survival, acting as the main contributor of the rapid migration to digital payments.

So what is it about Israeli-founded fintech startups that stand out from their scaling neighbors across the pond? Israeli founders first and foremost have brought to the table a distinct perspective and understanding of where the gaps exist within their respective focus industries —  whether it was Hippo and Lemonade in the world of property and casualty insurance, Rapyd and Melio in the world of business-to-business payments, or Earnix and Personetics in the world of banking data and analytics.

This is even more compelling given that many of these Israeli founders did not grow within financial services, but rather recognized those gaps, built their know-how around the industry (in some cases by hiring or partnering with industry experts and advisers during their ideation phase, strengthening their knowledge and validation), then sought to build more innovative and customer-focused solutions than most financial institutions can offer.

Having this in mind, it is becoming clearer that the Israeli fintech industry has slowly transitioned into a mature ecosystem with a combination of local talent, which now has expertise from a multitude of local fintechs that have scaled to success; a more global network of banking and insurance partners that have recognized the Israeli fintech disruptors; and the smart fintech -focused venture capital to go along with it. It’s a combination that will continue to set up Israeli fintech founders for success.

In addition, a major contributor to the fintech industry comes from the technological side. It is never enough to reach unicorn status with just the tech on the back end.

What most likely differentiates Israeli fintech from other ecosystems is the strong technological barriers and infrastructure built from the ground up, which then, of course, leads to the ability to be more customized, compliant, secured, etc. If I had to bet on where I believe Israeli fintech startups could become market leaders, I’d go with the following.

Voice-based transactions

Voice technologies have come a long way over the years; where once you knew you were talking to a robot, now financial institutions and applications offer a fully automated experience that sounds and feels just like a company employee.

Israel has shown growing success in the world of voice tech, with companies like Gong.io providing insights for remote sales teams; Bonobo (acquired by Salesforce) offering insights from customer support calls, texts and other interactions; and Voca.ai (acquired by Snapchat) offering an automated support agent to replace the huge costs of maintaining call centers.

Apple lowers commissions on in-app purchases for news publishers who participate in Apple News

By Sarah Perez

Apple today is launching a new program that will allow subscription news organizations that participate in the Apple News app and meet certain requirements to lower their commission rate to 15% on qualifying in-app purchases taking place inside their apps on the App Store. Typically, Apple’s model for subscription-based apps involves a standard 30% commission during their first year on the App Store, which then drops to 15% in year two. But the new Apple News Partner Program, announced today, will now make 15% the commission rate for participants starting on day one.

There are a few caveats to this condition, and they benefit Apple. To qualify, the news publisher must maintain a presence on Apple News and they have to provide their content in the Apple News Format (ANF). The latter is the JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) format that’s used to create articles for Apple News which are optimized for Mac, iPhone and other Apple mobile devices. Typically, this involves a bit of setup to translate news articles from a publisher’s website or from their CMS (content management system) to the supported JSON format. For WordPress and other popular CMS’s, there are also plugins available to make this process easier.

Meanwhile, for publishers headquartered outside one of the four existing Apple News markets — the U.S., U.K., Australia or Canada — they can instead satisfy the program’s obligations by providing Apple with an RSS feed.

On the App Store, the partner app qualifying for the 15% commission must be used to deliver “original, professionally authored” news content, and they must offer their auto-renewable subscriptions using Apple’s in-app purchase system.

Image Credits: Apple

While there is some initial work involved in establishing the publisher’s connection to Apple News, it’s worth noting that most major publishers already participate on Apple’s platform. That means they won’t have to do any additional work beyond what they’re already doing in order to transition over to the reduced commission for their apps. However, the program also serves as a way to push news organizations to continue to participate in the Apple News ecosystem, as it will make more financial sense to do so across their broader business.

That will likely be an area of contention for publishers, who would probably prefer that the reduced App Store commission didn’t come with strings attached.

Some publishers already worry that they’re giving up too much control over their business by tying themselves to the Apple News ecosystem. Last year, for example, The New York Times announced it would exit its partnership with Apple News, saying that Apple didn’t allow it to have as direct a relationship with readers as it wanted, and it would rather drive readers to its own app and website.

Apple, however, would argue that it doesn’t stand in the way of publishers’ businesses — it lets them paywall their content and keep 100% of the ad revenue from the ads they sell. (If they can’t sell it all or would prefer Apple to do so on their behalf, they then split the commission with Apple, keeping 70% of revenues instead.) In addition, for the company’s Apple News+ subscription service — where the subscription revenue split is much higher — it could be argued that it’s “found money.” That is, Apple markets the service to customers the publisher hadn’t been able to attract on its own anyway.

The launch of the new Apple News Partner program comes amid regulatory scrutiny over how Apple manages its App Store business and more recently, proposed legislation aiming to address alleged anticompetitive issues both in the U.S. and in major App Store markets, like South Korea.

Sensing this shift in the market, Apple had already been working to provide itself cover from antitrust complaints and lawsuits — like the one underway now with Epic Games — by adjusting its App Store commissions. Last year, it launched the App Store Small Business Program, which also lowered commissions on in-app purchases from 30% to 15% — but only for developers earning up to $1 million in revenues.

This program may have helped smaller publishers, but it was clear some major publishers still weren’t satisfied. After the reduced commissions for small businesses were announced in November, the publisher trade organization Digital Content Next (DCN) — a representative for the AP, The New York Times, NPR, ESPN, Vox, The Washington Post, Meredith, Bloomberg, NBCU, The Financial Times, and others — joined the advocacy group and lobbying organization the Coalition for App Fairness (CAF) the very next month.

These publishers, who had previously written to Apple CEO Tim Cook to demand lower commissions — had other complaints about the revenue share beyond just the size of the split. They also didn’t want to be required to use Apple’s services for in-app purchases for their subscriptions, saying this “Apple tax” forces them to raise their prices for consumers.

It remains to be seen how these publishers will now react to the launch of the Apple News Partner program.

While it gives them a way to lower their App Store fees, it doesn’t address their broader complaints against Apple’s platform and its rules. If anything, it ties the lower fees to a program that locks them in further to the Apple ecosystem.

Apple, in a gesture of goodwill, also said today it would recommit support to three leading media non-profits, Common Sense Media, the News Literacy Project, and Osservatorio Permanente Giovani-Editori. These non-profits offer nonpartisan, independent media literacy programs, which Apple views as key to its larger mission to empower people to become smart and active news readers. Apple also said it would later announce further media literacy projects from other organizations. The company would not disclose the size of its commitment from a financial standpoint however, or discuss how much it has sent such organizations in the past.

“Providing Apple News customers with access to trusted information from our publishing partners has been our priority from day one,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Services, in a statement. “For more than a decade, Apple has offered our customers many ways to access and enjoy news content across our products and services. We have hundreds of news apps from dozens of countries around the world available in the App Store, and created Apple News Format to offer publishers a tool to showcase their content and provide a great experience for millions of Apple News users,” he added.

More details about the program and the application form will be available at the News Partner Program website.

LOVE unveils a modern video messaging app with a business model that puts users in control

By Sarah Perez

A London-headquartered startup called LOVE, valued at $17 million following its pre-seed funding, aims to redefine how people stay in touch with close family and friends. The company is launching a messaging app that offers a combination of video calling as well as asynchronous video and audio messaging, in an ad-free, privacy-focused experience with a number of bells and whistles, including artistic filters and real-time transcription and translation features.

But LOVE’s bigger differentiator may not be its product alone, but rather the company’s mission.

LOVE aims for its product direction to be guided by its user base in a democratic fashion as opposed to having the decisions made about its future determined by an elite few at the top of some corporate hierarchy. In addition, the company’s longer-term goal is ultimately to hand over ownership of the app and its governance to its users, the company says.

These concepts have emerged as part of bigger trends towards a sort of “Web 3.0,” or next phase of internet development, where services are decentralized, user privacy is elevated, data is protected and transactions take place on digital ledgers, like a blockchain, in a more distributed fashion.

LOVE’s founders are proponents of this new model, including serial entrepreneur Samantha Radocchia, who previously founded three companies and was an early advocate for the blockchain as the co-founder of Chronicled, an enterprise blockchain company focused on the pharmaceutical supply chain.

As someone who’s been interested in emerging technology since her days of writing her anthropology thesis on currency exchanges in “Second Life’s” virtual world, she’s now faculty at Singularity University, where she’s given talks about blockchain, AI, Internet of Things, Future of Work, and other topics. She’s also authored an introductory guide to the blockchain with her book “Bitcoin Pizza.”

Co-founder Christopher Schlaeffer, meanwhile, held a number of roles at Deutsche Telekom, including chief product & innovation officer, corporate development officer and chief strategy officer, where he along with Google execs introduced the first mobile phone to run Android. He was also chief digital officer at the telecommunication services company VEON.

The two crossed paths after Schlaeffer had already begun the work of organizing a team to bring LOVE to the public, which includes co-founders Chief Technologist Jim Reeves, also previously of VEON, and Chief Designer Timm Kekeritz, previously an interaction designer at international design firm IDEO in San Francisco, design director at IXDS and founder of design consultancy Raureif in Berlin, among other roles.

Image Credits: LOVE

Explained Radocchia, what attracted her to join as CEO was the potential to create a new company that upholds more positive values than what’s often seen today — in fact, the brand name “LOVE” is a reference to this aim. She was also interested in the potential to think through what she describes as “new business models that are not reliant on advertising or harvesting the data of our users,” she says.

To that end, LOVE plans to monetize without any advertising. While the company isn’t ready to explain its business model in full, it would involve users opting in to services through granular permissions and membership, we’re told.

“We believe our users will much rather be willing to pay for services they consciously use and grant permissions to in a given context than have their data used for an advertising model which is simply not transparent,” says Radocchia.

LOVE expects to share more about the model next year.

As for the LOVE app itself, it’s a fairly polished mobile messenger offering an interesting combination of features. Like any other video chat app, you can video call with friends and family, either in one-on-one calls or in groups. Currently, LOVE supports up to five call participants, but expects to expand that as it scales. The app also supports video and audio messaging for asynchronous conversations. There are already tools that offer this sort of functionality on the market, of course — like WhatsApp, with its support for audio messages, or video messenger Marco Polo. But they don’t offer quite the same expanded feature set.

Image Credits: LOVE

For starters, LOVE limits its video messages to 60 seconds, for brevity’s sake. (As anyone who’s used Marco Polo knows, videos can become a bit rambling, which makes it harder to catch up when you’re behind on group chats.) In addition, LOVE allows you to both watch the video content as well as read the real-time transcription of what’s being said — the latter which comes in handy not only for accessibility’s sake, but also for those times you want to hear someone’s messages but aren’t in a private place to listen or don’t have headphones. Conversations can also be translated into 50 languages.

“A lot of the traditional communication or messenger products are coming from a paradigm that has always been text-based,” explains Radocchia. “We’re approaching it completely differently. So while other platforms have a lot of the features that we do, I think that…the perspective that we’ve approached it has completely flipped it on its head,” she continues. “As opposed to bolting video messages on to a primarily text-based interface, [LOVE is] actually doing it in the opposite way and adding text as a sort of a magically transcribed add-on — and something that you never, hopefully, need to be typing out on your keyboard again,” she adds.

The app’s user interface, meanwhile, has been designed to encourage eye-to-eye contact with the speaker to make conversations feel more natural. It does this by way of design elements where bubbles float around as you’re speaking and the bubble with the current speaker grows to pull your focus away from looking at yourself. The company is also working with the curator of Serpentine Gallery in London, Hans Ulrich-Obrist, to create new filters that aren’t about beautification or gimmicks, but are instead focused on introducing a new form of visual expression that makes people feel more comfortable on camera.

For the time being, this has resulted in a filter that slightly abstracts your appearance, almost in the style of animation or some other form of visual arts.

The app claims to use end-to-end encryption and the automatic deletion of its content after seven days — except for messages you yourself recorded, if you’ve chosen to save them as “memorable moments.”

“One of our commitments is to privacy and the right-to-forget,” says Radocchia. “We don’t want to be or need to be storing any of this information.”

LOVE has been soft-launched on the App Store, where it’s been used with a number of testers and is working to organically grow its user base through an onboarding invite mechanism that asks users to invite at least three people to join. This same onboarding process also carefully explains why LOVE asks for permissions — like using speech recognition to create subtitles.

LOVE says its valuation is around $17 million USD following pre-seed investments from a combination of traditional startup investors and strategic angel investors across a variety of industries, including tech, film, media, TV and financial services. The company will raise a seed round this fall.

The app is currently available on iOS, but an Android version will arrive later in the year. (Note that LOVE does not currently support the iOS 15 beta software, where it has issues with speech transcription and in other areas. That should be resolved next week, following an app update now in the works.)

Ramp and Brex draw diverging market plans with M&A strategies

By Ryan Lawler

Earlier today, spend management startup Ramp said it has raised a $300 million Series C that valued it at $3.9 billion. It also said it was acquiring Buyer, a “negotiation-as-a-service” platform that it believes will help customers save money on purchases and SaaS products.

The round and deal were announced just a week after competitor Brex shared news of its own acquisition — the $50 million purchase of Israeli fintech startup Weav. That deal was made after Brex’s founders invested in Weav, which offers a “universal API for commerce platforms.”

From a high level, all of the recent deal-making in corporate cards and spend management shows that it’s not enough to just help companies track what employees are expensing these days. As the market matures and feature sets begin to converge, the players are seeking to differentiate themselves from the competition.

But the point of interest here is these deals can tell us where both companies think they can provide and extract the most value from the market.

These differences come atop another layer of divergence between the two companies: While Brex has instituted a paid software tier of its service, Ramp has not.

Earning more by spending less

Let’s start with Ramp. Launched in 2019, the company is a relative newcomer in the spend management category. But by all accounts, it’s producing some impressive growth numbers. As our colleague Mary Ann Azevedo wrote:

Since the beginning of 2021, the company says it has seen its number of cardholders on its platform increase by 5x, with more than 2,000 businesses currently using Ramp as their “primary spend management solution.” The transaction volume on its corporate cards has tripled since April, when its last raise was announced. And, impressively, Ramp has seen its transaction volume increase year over year by 1,000%, according to CEO and co-founder Eric Glyman.

Ramp’s focus has always been on helping its customers save money: It touts a 1.5% cash back reward for all purchases made through its cards, and says its dashboard helps businesses identify duplicitous subscriptions and license redundancies. Ramp also alerts customers when they can save money on annual versus monthly subscriptions, which it says has led many customers to do away with established T&E platforms like Concur or Expensify.

All told, the company claims that the average customer saves 3.3% per year on expenses after switching to its platform — and all that is before it brings Buyer into the fold.

Pry Financials raises $4.2M to make startup accounting more approachable

By Catherine Shu

Pry Financials wants to make startup finances approachable for its entire team, not just the people in charge of its accounting spreadsheets. The Y Combinator alum announced today it has raised $4.2 million from Global Founders Capital, Pioneer Fund, NOMO VC, Liquid2 and Hyphen Capital. 

Launched in March, Pry now has more than 200 customers and claims it has grown 35% month-over-month since YC’s Demo Day. It was founded by Alex Sailer, Tiffany Wong, Hayden Jensen and Andy Su. 

Before starting Pry, Su was co-founder of InDinero, another YC alum that started as a “Mint for small businesses” before pivoting to a full-service accounting company. InDinero launched while he was still a student at UC Berkeley, and Su eventually became responsible for its financial planning.

A group photo of Pry Financials' team

Pry Financials’ team. Image Credits: Pry Financials

He told TechCrunch that most startups can’t afford accounting software like Workday Adaptive Planning. Instead, they sometimes work with outsourced CFO services, but mostly rely on spreadsheets for everything: three-way forecasts, predicting runway, hiring and contractor budgets and investor updates. 

“I was the chief technical officer and over the years, I also took on the finance function, so it was kind of a dual CTO/CFO role. This was 2010 through 2020 and as technology grew, the engineering and product teams got all sorts of new tools every six months or so, whereas the finance team was just stuck in Excel,” he said. 

Started as a side project while Su was still at InDinero, Pry starts at just $50 a month and replaces those spreadsheets with easy-to-understand dashboards for accounting, financial planning and scenario modeling. The dashboards connect to QuickBooks, Xero or bank accounts, so numbers are continuously updated.

Pry’s clients typically start using it after they raise seed funding, because “for most first-time founders, that’s the most amount of money you have ever received, so you need to spend more time managing it and reviewing it every month. And you’re spending a lot of time on payroll each month,” Su said. Second-time founders, meanwhile, sign up for Pry because they are sick of Excel spreadsheets. 

“Reviewing a spreadsheet is mind-numbingly hard,” said Su. “If you see a number that’s off, you get this weird formula if you didn’t do it yourself. Then you basically have to write a long email to the financial analyst who wrote it and hope that they get back to you before closing time.” For founders who need to update lenders or investors every month, this means a lot of work. 

Pry makes the process more efficient by turning three-way reports — combinations of balance sheets, profit and loss statements and cashflow — into Financial Report dashboards, and then adding features like hiring plans, financial modeling and scenario planning. 

The scenario planning feature serves as a sandbox, giving startup teams and their investors a way to predict how different situations will impact finances: for example, how much runway they have if they raise a certain amount of funding or adjust product pricing.

Fundraising dashboards created with Pry Financials

Fundraising dashboards created with Pry Financials. Image credits: Pry Financials

“We’re improving upon and trying to make decisions about the company in a collaborative way. The analogy we have is Git branching, where you have your main plan, and want to try something like a new revenue model or acquiring a business, but don’t want to mess with your current strategy,” said Su. “What you can do is create a completely new branch with, say, a new pricing strategy. You can make all the changes you want and then switch back to your old branch without worrying about overriding or conflicting with it.” 

Those speculative branches are also continuously updated with the company’s most recent bank account and payroll information, so founders don’t need to recreate them from scratch if they want to revisit a potential scenario later. 

Pry plans to build more complex predictive tools and also integrate industry standards, like statistic and benchmarks, into templates to help founders understand what targets they should set. 

Because Pry is easier to manage than a set of Excel spreadsheets, Su said it’s helped startups spot important things. For example, one founder was able to find a way to save $15,000 by catching a tax issue. Pry also helps everyone at a startup understand its finances’ even if they haven’t worked with accounting spreadsheets before. The platform will add roles and permissions soon, so founders can give or restrict access to different people, like leaders of specific departments. 

Su said Pry does not compete with the accounting services many startups rely on until they can hire a head of finance, but makes it easier for startups to collaborate with them since they can share their dashboards. 

“Usually early on, you can outsource to a CFO firm. That’s the norm in the business and it works pretty well for most companies. You get a part-time CFO to work really hard for a month and get your fundraising structure done,” said Su, adding “we fit into that ecosystem well.” 

How the law got it wrong with Apple Card

By Ram Iyer
Liz O'Sullivan Contributor
Liz O’Sullivan is CEO of Parity, a platform that automates model risk and algorithmic governance for the enterprise. She also advises the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots on all things artificial intelligence.
More posts by this contributor

Advocates of algorithmic justice have begun to see their proverbial “days in court” with legal investigations of enterprises like UHG and Apple Card. The Apple Card case is a strong example of how current anti-discrimination laws fall short of the fast pace of scientific research in the emerging field of quantifiable fairness.

While it may be true that Apple and their underwriters were found innocent of fair lending violations, the ruling came with clear caveats that should be a warning sign to enterprises using machine learning within any regulated space. Unless executives begin to take algorithmic fairness more seriously, their days ahead will be full of legal challenges and reputational damage.

What happened with Apple Card?

In late 2019, startup leader and social media celebrity David Heinemeier Hansson raised an important issue on Twitter, to much fanfare and applause. With almost 50,000 likes and retweets, he asked Apple and their underwriting partner, Goldman Sachs, to explain why he and his wife, who share the same financial ability, would be granted different credit limits. To many in the field of algorithmic fairness, it was a watershed moment to see the issues we advocate go mainstream, culminating in an inquiry from the NY Department of Financial Services (DFS).

At first glance, it may seem heartening to credit underwriters that the DFS concluded in March that Goldman’s underwriting algorithm did not violate the strict rules of financial access created in 1974 to protect women and minorities from lending discrimination. While disappointing to activists, this result was not surprising to those of us working closely with data teams in finance.

There are some algorithmic applications for financial institutions where the risks of experimentation far outweigh any benefit, and credit underwriting is one of them. We could have predicted that Goldman would be found innocent, because the laws for fairness in lending (if outdated) are clear and strictly enforced.

And yet, there is no doubt in my mind that the Goldman/Apple algorithm discriminates, along with every other credit scoring and underwriting algorithm on the market today. Nor do I doubt that these algorithms would fall apart if researchers were ever granted access to the models and data we would need to validate this claim. I know this because the NY DFS partially released its methodology for vetting the Goldman algorithm, and as you might expect, their audit fell far short of the standards held by modern algorithm auditors today.

How did DFS (under current law) assess the fairness of Apple Card?

In order to prove the Apple algorithm was “fair,” DFS considered first whether Goldman had used “prohibited characteristics” of potential applicants like gender or marital status. This one was easy for Goldman to pass — they don’t include race, gender or marital status as an input to the model. However, we’ve known for years now that some model features can act as “proxies” for protected classes.

If you’re Black, a woman and pregnant, for instance, your likelihood of obtaining credit may be lower than the average of the outcomes among each overarching protected category.

The DFS methodology, based on 50 years of legal precedent, failed to mention whether they considered this question, but we can guess that they did not. Because if they had, they’d have quickly found that credit score is so tightly correlated to race that some states are considering banning its use for casualty insurance. Proxy features have only stepped into the research spotlight recently, giving us our first example of how science has outpaced regulation.

In the absence of protected features, DFS then looked for credit profiles that were similar in content but belonged to people of different protected classes. In a certain imprecise sense, they sought to find out what would happen to the credit decision were we to “flip” the gender on the application. Would a female version of the male applicant receive the same treatment?

Intuitively, this seems like one way to define “fair.” And it is — in the field of machine learning fairness, there is a concept called a “flip test” and it is one of many measures of a concept called “individual fairness,” which is exactly what it sounds like. I asked Patrick Hall, principal scientist at bnh.ai, a leading boutique AI law firm, about the analysis most common in investigating fair lending cases. Referring to the methods DFS used to audit Apple Card, he called it basic regression, or “a 1970s version of the flip test,” bringing us example number two of our insufficient laws.

A new vocabulary for algorithmic fairness

Ever since Solon Barocas’ seminal paper “Big Data’s Disparate Impact” in 2016, researchers have been hard at work to define core philosophical concepts into mathematical terms. Several conferences have sprung into existence, with new fairness tracks emerging at the most notable AI events. The field is in a period of hypergrowth, where the law has as of yet failed to keep pace. But just like what happened to the cybersecurity industry, this legal reprieve won’t last forever.

Perhaps we can forgive DFS for its softball audit given that the laws governing fair lending are born of the civil rights movement and have not evolved much in the 50-plus years since inception. The legal precedents were set long before machine learning fairness research really took off. If DFS had been appropriately equipped to deal with the challenge of evaluating the fairness of the Apple Card, they would have used the robust vocabulary for algorithmic assessment that’s blossomed over the last five years.

The DFS report, for instance, makes no mention of measuring “equalized odds,” a notorious line of inquiry first made famous in 2018 by Joy Buolamwini, Timnit Gebru and Deb Raji. Their “Gender Shades” paper proved that facial recognition algorithms guess wrong on dark female faces more often than they do on subjects with lighter skin, and this reasoning holds true for many applications of prediction beyond computer vision alone.

Equalized odds would ask of Apple’s algorithm: Just how often does it predict creditworthiness correctly? How often does it guess wrong? Are there disparities in these error rates among people of different genders, races or disability status? According to Hall, these measurements are important, but simply too new to have been fully codified into the legal system.

If it turns out that Goldman regularly underestimates female applicants in the real world, or assigns interest rates that are higher than Black applicants truly deserve, it’s easy to see how this would harm these underserved populations at national scale.

Financial services’ Catch-22

Modern auditors know that the methods dictated by legal precedent fail to catch nuances in fairness for intersectional combinations within minority categories — a problem that’s exacerbated by the complexity of machine learning models. If you’re Black, a woman and pregnant, for instance, your likelihood of obtaining credit may be lower than the average of the outcomes among each overarching protected category.

These underrepresented groups may never benefit from a holistic audit of the system without special attention paid to their uniqueness, given that the sample size of minorities is by definition a smaller number in the set. This is why modern auditors prefer “fairness through awareness” approaches that allow us to measure results with explicit knowledge of the demographics of the individuals in each group.

But there’s a Catch-22. In financial services and other highly regulated fields, auditors often can’t use “fairness through awareness,” because they may be prevented from collecting sensitive information from the start. The goal of this legal constraint was to prevent lenders from discrimination. In a cruel twist of fate, this gives cover to algorithmic discrimination, giving us our third example of legal insufficiency.

The fact that we can’t collect this information hamstrings our ability to find out how models treat underserved groups. Without it, we might never prove what we know to be true in practice — full-time moms, for instance, will reliably have thinner credit files, because they don’t execute every credit-based purchase under both spousal names. Minority groups may be far more likely to be gig workers, tipped employees or participate in cash-based industries, leading to commonalities among their income profiles that prove less common for the majority.

Importantly, these differences on the applicants’ credit files do not necessarily translate to true financial responsibility or creditworthiness. If it’s your goal to predict creditworthiness accurately, you’d want to know where the method (e.g., a credit score) breaks down.

What this means for businesses using AI

In Apple’s example, it’s worth mentioning a hopeful epilogue to the story where Apple made a consequential update to their credit policy to combat the discrimination that is protected by our antiquated laws. In Apple CEO Tim Cook’s announcement, he was quick to highlight a “lack of fairness in the way the industry [calculates] credit scores.”

Their new policy allows spouses or parents to combine credit files such that the weaker credit file can benefit from the stronger. It’s a great example of a company thinking ahead to steps that may actually reduce the discrimination that exists structurally in our world. In updating their policies, Apple got ahead of the regulation that may come as a result of this inquiry.

This is a strategic advantage for Apple, because NY DFS made exhaustive mention of the insufficiency of current laws governing this space, meaning updates to regulation may be nearer than many think. To quote Superintendent of Financial Services Linda A. Lacewell: “The use of credit scoring in its current form and laws and regulations barring discrimination in lending are in need of strengthening and modernization.” In my own experience working with regulators, this is something today’s authorities are very keen to explore.

I have no doubt that American regulators are working to improve the laws that govern AI, taking advantage of this robust vocabulary for equality in automation and math. The Federal Reserve, OCC, CFPB, FTC and Congress are all eager to address algorithmic discrimination, even if their pace is slow.

In the meantime, we have every reason to believe that algorithmic discrimination is rampant, largely because the industry has also been slow to adopt the language of academia that the last few years have brought. Little excuse remains for enterprises failing to take advantage of this new field of fairness, and to root out the predictive discrimination that is in some ways guaranteed. And the EU agrees, with draft laws that apply specifically to AI that are set to be adopted some time in the next two years.

The field of machine learning fairness has matured quickly, with new techniques discovered every year and myriad tools to help. The field is only now reaching a point where this can be prescribed with some degree of automation. Standards bodies have stepped in to provide guidance to lower the frequency and severity of these issues, even if American law is slow to adopt.

Because whether discrimination by algorithm is intentional, it is illegal. So, anyone using advanced analytics for applications relating to healthcare, housing, hiring, financial services, education or government are likely breaking these laws without knowing it.

Until clearer regulatory guidance becomes available for the myriad applications of AI in sensitive situations, the industry is on its own to figure out which definitions of fairness are best.

Embedded finance won’t make every firm into a fintech company

By Annie Siebert
Eyal Lifshitz Contributor
Eyal Lifshitz is the CEO of BlueVine.
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A short decade after software started eating the world, along came headlines about every company becoming a fintech thanks to innovation and growth in embedded finance business models.

This narrative oversimplifies the evolution that’s happening in the financial services sector. Storing and moving money and extending credit in a regulated environment is difficult. And differentiating your offering from incumbent financial institutions requires much more than superficial tweaks.

What really makes a fintech company extends far beyond user interface enhancements and delivering financial services to end customers. It’s what’s “under the hood” — the full-stack approach that allows fintech companies to truly innovate for their customers.

What really makes a fintech company extends far beyond user interface enhancements and delivering financial services to end customers.

Embedded finance helps companies and brands outside of the core financial sector distribute financial services. This requires varying levels of effort from the company and looks like anything from Starbucks offering an integrated wallet and payments within its app to Lyft offering a debit card to their drivers. But that doesn’t make Starbucks or Lyft fintech companies.

The fallacy behind the hype

The “every company will be a fintech” stance investors are bullish on conflates multiple approaches to inlaying financial offerings, coupling the resurgence of white-labeled financial services (which have been around for decades) with the rising banking, payments and lending-as-a-service players. The latter approach allows companies to customize their financial product experience while outsourcing many core financial services tasks. The former is simply distribution through embedded delivery.

There are four core tenets to fully operate as a financial services provider: a customer-facing product, transactional infrastructure, risk management and compliance, and customer servicing. In the case of lending, there is a fifth tenet: Companies also need to be able to manage capital. Embedded financial services help companies sidestep the majority of what it really means to be a fintech.

White-labeling versus “becoming a fintech”

While embedded finance is hot today, white-labeled financial services have been around for decades. Branded credit cards, for example, are a common paradigm for white-labeling. They quickly became a lasting way to incentivize consumer loyalty but don’t signal real effort or know-how in financial services. United and Alaska don’t run credit checks, configure billing or handle disputes for cardholding customers, nor do they assume any risk by embossing their logo on a card. The partnerships are major money makers for airlines while the risk stays on the financial institutions’ side (Chase, Bank of America and Visa). This risk can even account for significant loss on the financial side: According to American Express, 21% of its outstanding credit card loans belonged to people with a Delta credit card a few years ago.

This white-labeling approach is becoming common for other services, coming to life in forms like banking offerings from cell carriers, and it’s by design: Financial services are complex and highly regulated, so brands prefer to defer most of the work to the experts. So while United, Delta or T-Mobile offer financial services under their brand, they are definitely not becoming fintech companies.

In contrast, some corporations are seeing the opportunity to build financial services from the ground up. Walmart’s move to snag Goldman Sachs talent to lead its foray into finance (with Ribbit at the helm) shows promise for a true fintech spinout.

The investment in expertise in compliance and risk management furthers the company’s potential to build detailed and relevant infrastructure from the get-go — a significant step beyond the retailer’s many existing white-labeled financial partnerships.

The limitations of platforms as a service

Tools and turnkey solutions that help non-finance companies build financial applications more recently came into the mix: VCs are enthusiastic about new players building embedded payments, lending and, more recently, banking platform services (also known as BaaS) through APIs and backend tools.

As opposed to financial infrastructure services provided directly by sponsor banks or processors providing payments or ledger services, these platforms abstract the underlying infrastructure, wrap them with friendly-to-use APIs, and bundle core financial elements like risk management, compliance and servicing. While these platforms do offer some self-efficacy for companies to provide financial services, their major limitation is that they’re general purpose by design.

Fintechs found an opportunity to serve customers overlooked and underserved by traditional finance through specialization. Traditional financial institutions long applied the generalist model, carrying hundreds of SKUs and serving all segments. This strategy inevitably led banks to invest more in services for their most profitable customers, optimizing for their needs. Less profitable segments were left with stale and one-size-fits-all offerings.

Fintechs’ success with these underserved segments is derived from a relentless pursuit and laser focus on addressing core customers’ unique needs, building products and services designed for them. In order to deliver on this promise, fintechs must innovate across all layers of the stack — from the product experience and feature set to the infrastructure and risk management, all the way down to servicing.

UI is not nearly enough to differentiate, and addressing customers’ needs while minding overall unit economics is critical. One fintech’s choices on these matters may be completely different from another if they address different segments — it all boils down to tradeoffs. For example, deciding on which data sources to use and balancing between onboarding and transactional risk look different if optimizing for freelancers rather than larger small businesses.

In contrast, third-party platform providers must be generic enough to power a broad range of companies and to enable multiple use cases. While the companies partnering with these services can build and customize at the product feature level, they are heavily reliant on their platform partner for infrastructure and core financial services, thus limited to that partner’s configurations and capabilities.

As such, embedded platform services work well to power straightforward commoditized tasks like credit card processing, but limit companies’ ability to differentiate on more complex offerings, like banking, which require end-to-end optimization.

More generally and from a customer’s perspective, embedded fintech partnerships are most effective when providing confined financial services within specific user flows to enhance the overall user experience.

For example, a company can offer credit at the point of sale through a third-party provider to enable a purchase. However, when considering general purpose and standalone financial services, the benefits of embedded fintech are much weaker.

Building a product of choice

The biggest proponents of embedded finance argue that large companies and brands can be successful with finance add-ons on their platforms because of their brand recognition and install base.

But that overlooks the reality of choice in the market: Just because a customer does one facet of their business with a company doesn’t necessarily mean they want that company as their provider for everything, especially if the service is inferior to what they can get elsewhere.

While the fintech market booms and legacy brands continue to buy into the opportunity, verticalized, full-stack fintechs will trump their generic offerings time and time again. Some aspects of embedded finance and white-labeling will continue to crop up or prevail, like payment processing and buy now, pay later services. But customers will continue to choose the banks/neobanks, lenders and tools built for them and their own unique needs, bucking the “every company is a fintech” fallacy.

Former Twitter and DreamWorks exec joins Acorns as CFO ahead of the fintech’s public debut

By Mary Ann Azevedo

As fintech Acorns plans to go public later this year, it has named former Twitter and DreamWorks animation exec Rich Sullivan to serve as its new chief financial officer.

Irvine, California-based Acorns announced in May its intent to go public by merging with publicly traded special purpose acquisition company Pioneer Merger Corp. The SPAC values the fintech company at $2.2 billion. 

Sullivan joins Acorns from Twitter, where he led corporate finance and FP&A. Prior to Twitter, he held executive positions at STX Entertainment and DreamWorks Animation, where he served as the company’s Deputy CFO. Sullivan has also held various roles at AT&T.

Image Credits: Rich Sullivan / Acorns

Acorns CEO Noah Kerner told TechCrunch that he was drawn to the executive’s experience in subscriptions, family and in “high-growth” technology as he thought about the consumer fintech’s long-term roadmap.

“Those are obviously all really relevant to what we’re doing at Acorns,” he said. 

Since its 2012 inception, the company has evolved its offering to also include investment services, debt management and a product aimed at children, Acorns Kids. It has more than 4 million subscribers that have invested nearly $10 billion through its app. The company touts nearly 99% monthly retention, and has the ambitious goal of reaching 10 million subscribers by 2025, according to Kerner. This year, he is projecting 60% to 70% CAGR growth.

For his part, Sullivan believes that his experience of more than two decades of working for several public companies in various roles will be valuable to Acorns in the process of going public.  

He told TechCrunch he was drawn to the company’s “mission-driven approach to put responsible tools of wealth in everyone’s hands by making investing easy and accessible to a large portion of the market that basically is underserved from the financial services industry, at least in the traditional sense.”

“I think it’s uniquely positioned as a high-growth business and also an interesting space that sits at the cross-section of fintech services and social responsibility,” Sullivan added. “As an industry leader with over 4 million subscribers with a really large addressable market, I think Acorns has an opportunity to be one of the most impactful companies in the space.” 

Along that vein, Acorns launched ESG portfolios, also known as sustainable portfolios, that are powered by Blackrock shares. (ESG stands for Environmental, Social, & Governance). Kerner said the move was in part driven by customer demand.

“The strategy there is really to allow our customers to not just invest in themselves, but also in a better planet,” he said. 

The role is not a newly created one for the popular saving and investing app. Jasmine Lee has served a dual role as chief operating officer and CFO, and helped prep Acorns for the public market. She will now focus on executing Acorn’s strategic plan and overseeing the day to day operations as COO, the company said.

The next generation of global payments: Afterpay + Square

By Ram Iyer
Dana Stalder Contributor
Dana Stalder is a partner at Matrix Partners. The former commercial chief (Product, Sales and Marketing) at PayPal, he now leads fintech investing at Matrix Partners, where he also invests in consumer marketplaces and enterprise software.

Sunday was a big day in fintech: Afterpay has agreed to merge with Square. This agreement sets two of the most admired financial technology companies in recent history on a path to becoming one.

Afterpay and Square have the potential to build one of the world’s most important payments networks. Square has built a very significant merchant payment network, and, via Cash App, a thriving high-growth consumer payment service. However, these two lines of business have historically not been integrated. Together, Square and Afterpay will be able to weave all of these services together into a single integrated experience.

Afterpay and Cash App each have double-digit millions of consumers, and Square’s seller ecosystem and Afterpay’s merchant network both record double-digit billions of payment volume per year. From the offline register and the online checkout flow to sending money in just a few taps, Square and Afterpay will tell a complete story of next-generation economic empowerment.

As Afterpay’s only institutional venture investor, I wanted to share some perspective on how we got here and what this merger means for the future of consumer finance and the payments industry.

Afterpay and Square have the potential to build one of the world’s most important payments networks.

Critical innovations in fintech

Every five to 10 years, the global payments industry undergoes a critical innovation cycle that determines the winners and losers for the next several decades. The last major transition was the shift to NFC-based mobile payments, which I wrote about in 2015. The major mobile OS vendors (Apple and Google) cemented their position in the global payments stack by deftly bridging the needs of the networks (Visa, Mastercard, etc.) and consumers by way of the mobile devices in their pockets.

Afterpay sparked the latest critical innovation cycle. Conceived in a living room in Sydney by a millennial, Nick Molnar, for millennials, Afterpay had a key insight: Millennials don’t like credit.

Millennials came of age during the global mortgage crisis of 2008. As young adults, they watched their friends and family lose their homes by overextending on mortgage debt, bolstering their already lower trust for banks. They also have record levels of student debt. Therefore, it’s no surprise that millennials (and Gen Z right behind them) strongly prefer debit cards over credit cards.

But it’s one thing to recognize the paradigm shift and quite another to do something about it. Nick Molnar and Anthony Eisen did something, ultimately building one of the fastest-growing payments startups in history on their core product: Buy now, pay later … and never any interest.

Afterpay’s product is simple. If you have $100 in your cart and choose to pay with Afterpay, it will charge your bank card (typically a debit card) $25 every two weeks in four installments. No interest, no revolving debt and no fees with on-time payments. For the millennial consumer, this meant they could get the primary benefit of a credit card (the ability to pay later) with their debit card, without the need to worry about all the bad things that come with credit cards — high interest rates and revolving debt.

All upside, no downside. Who could resist? For the early merchants, virtually all of whom relied on millennials as their key growth segment, they got a fair trade: Pay a small fee above payment processing to Afterpay, get significantly higher average order values and conversions to purchase. It was a win-win proposition and, with lots of execution, a new payment network was born.

The rise of Afterpay

Image Credits: Matrix Partners

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery

Afterpay went somewhat unnoticed outside Australia in 2016 and 2017, but once it came to the U.S. in 2018 and built a business there that broke $100 million net revenues in only its second year, it got attention.

Klarna, which had struggled with product-market fit in the U.S., pivoted their business to emulate Afterpay. And Affirm, which had always been about traditional credit — generating a significant portion of their revenue from consumer interest — also noticed and introduced their own BNPL offering. Then came PayPal with “Pay in 4,” and just a few weeks ago, there has been news that Apple is expected to enter the space.

Afterpay created a global phenomenon that has now become a category embraced by mainstream players across the industry — a category that is on track to take a meaningful share of global retail payments over the next 10 years.

Afterpay stands apart. It has always been the BNPL leader by virtually every measure, and it has done it by staying true to their customers’ needs. The company is great at understanding the millennial and Gen Z consumer. It’s evident in the voice, tone and lifestyle brand you experience as an Afterpay user, and in the merchant network it continues to build strategically. It’s also evident in the simple fact that it doesn’t try to cross-sell users revolving debt products.

Most importantly, it’s evident in the usage metrics relative to competition. This is a product that people love, use and have come to rely on, all with better, fairer terms than were ever available to them than with traditional consumer credit.

Consumer loyalty and frequency drives powerful network effect, securing the lifetime value of a consumer

Image Credits: Afterpay H1 FY21 results presentation

Square + Afterpay: The perfect fit

I’ve been building payment companies for over 15 years now, initially in the early days of PayPal and more recently as a venture investor at Matrix Partners. I’ve never seen a combination that has such potential to deliver extraordinary value to consumers and merchants. Even more so than eBay + PayPal.

Beyond the clear product and network complementarity, what’s most exciting to me and my partners is the alignment of values and culture. Square and Afterpay share a vision of a future with more opportunity and fewer economic hurdles for all. As they build toward that future together, I’m confident that this combination is a winner. Square and Afterpay together will become the world’s next generation payment provider.

Why Square is shelling out $29B to snag BNPL player Afterpay

By Alex Wilhelm

Shares of Square are up this morning after the company announced its second-quarter earnings and that it will buy Afterpay, an Australian buy now, pay later (BNPL) player in a $29 billion deal. As TechCrunch reported this morning, Afterpay shareholders will receive 0.375 shares of Square in exchange for their existing equity.

Shares of Afterpay are sharply higher after the deal was announced thanks to its implied premium, while shares of Square are up 7% in early-morning trading.


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Over the past year, we’ve written extensively about the BNPL market, usually from the perspective of earnings from companies in the space. Afterpay has been a key data source, along with the yet-private Klarna and U.S. public BNPL outfit Affirm. Recall that each company has posted strong growth in recent periods, with the United States arising as a prime competitive market.

Most recently, consumer hardware and services giant Apple is reportedly preparing a move into the BNPL space. Our read at the time was that any such movement by Cupertino would impact mass-market BNPL players more than niche-focused companies. Apple has a fintech base and broad IRL payment acceptance, making it a potentially strong competitor for BNPL services aimed at consumers; BNPL services targeted at particular industries or niches would likely see less competition from Apple.

From that landscape, let’s explore the Square-Afterpay deal. We want to know what Afterpay brings to Square in terms of revenue, growth and reach. We also want to do some math on the price Square is willing to pay for the company — and what that might tell us about the value of BNPL and fintech revenues more broadly. Then we’ll eyeball the numbers and try to decide if Square is overpaying for Afterpay.

What Afterpay brings to Square

As with most major deals these days, Square and Afterpay released an investor presentation detailing their argument in favor of their combination. Let’s dig through it.

Square is a two-part company. It has a large consumer business via Cash App, and it has a large business division that offers payments tech and other fintech services to corporate customers. Recall that Square is also building out banking services for its business customers and that Cash App also serves some banking and investing functionality for consumers.

Yaydoo secures $20M, aims to simplify B2B collections, payments

By Christine Hall

It’s no secret that the technology for easy business-to-business payments has not yet caught up to its peer-to-peer counterparts, but Yaydoo thinks it has the answer.

The Mexico City-based B2B software and payments company provides three products, VendorPlace, P-Card and PorCobrar, for managing cash flow, optimizing access to smart liquidity, and connecting small, midsize and large businesses to an ecosystem of digital tools.

Sergio Almaguer, Guillermo Treviño and Roberto Flores founded Yaydoo — the name combines “yay” and “do” to show the happiness of doing something — in 2017. Today, the company announced the close of a $20.4 million Series A round co-led by Base10 Partners and monashees.

Joining them in the round were SoftBank’s Latin America Fund and Leap Global Partners. In total, Yaydoo has raised $21.5 million, Almaguer told TechCrunch.

Prior to starting the company, Almaguer was working at another company in Mexico doing point-of-sale. His large enterprise customers wanted automation for their payments, but he noticed that the same tools were too expensive for small businesses.

The co-founders started Yaydoo to provide procurement, accounts payable and accounts receivables, but in a simpler format so that the collection and payment of B2B transactions was affordable for small businesses.

Image Credits: Yaydoo

The idea is taking off, and vendors are adding their own customers so that they are all part of the network to better link invoices to purchase orders and then connect to accounts payable, Almaguer said. Yaydoo estimates that the automation workflows reduced 80% of time wasted paying vendors, on average.

Yaydoo is joining a sector of fintech that is heating up — the global B2B payments market is valued at $120 trillion annually. Last week, B2B payments platform Nium announced a $200 million in Series D funding on a $1 billion valuation. Others attracting funding recently include Paystand, which raised $50 million in Series C funding to make B2B payments cashless, while Dwolla raised $21 million for its API that allows companies to build and facilitate fast payments.

The new funding will enable the company to attract new hires in Mexico and when the company expands into other Latin American countries. Yaydoo is also looking at future opportunities for its working capital business, like understanding how many invoices customers are setting, the access to actual payments, and how money flows out and in so that it can provide insights on working capital funding gaps. The company will also invest in product development.

The company has grown to over 800 customers, up from 200 in the first quarter of 2020. Its headcount also grew to 100 from 30 during the same time. In the last 12 months, over 70,000 companies have transacted on the Yaydoo network, and total payment volume grew to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Yaydoo is a SaaS subscription model, but the new funding will also enable the company to create a pool of potential customers with a “freemium” offering with the goal of converting those customers into the subscription model as they grow, Almaguer said.

Rexhi Dollaku, partner at Base10 Partners, said the firm saw the way B2B payments were becoming modernized and “was impressed” by the Yaydoo team and how it built a complicated infrastructure, but made it easy to use.

He believes Latin America is 10 years behind in terms of B2B payments but will catch up sooner than later because of the digital transformation going on in the region.

“We are starting to see early signs of the network being built out of the payments product, and that is a good indication,” Dollaku said. “With the funding, Yaydoo will be also able to provide more financial services options for businesses to address a working fund gap.”

Element Ventures pulls in $130M to double-down on the fintech enterprise trend

By Mike Butcher

With the rise of Open Banking, PSD2 Regulation, insurtech and the whole, general fintech boom, tech investors have realized there is an increasing place for dedicated funds which double down on this ongoing movement. When you look at the rise of banking-as-a-service offerings, payments platforms, insurtech, asset management and infrastructure providers, you realize there is a pretty huge revolution going on.

European fintech companies have raised $12.3 billion in 2021 according to Dealroom, but the market is still wide open for a great deal more funding for B2B fintech startups.

So it’s no surprise that B2B fintech-focused Element Ventures has announced a $130 million fund to double down on this new fintech enterprise trend.

Founded by financial services veterans Stephen Gibson and Michael McFadgen, and joined by Spencer Lake (HSBC’s former vice chairman of Global Banking and Markets), Element is backed by finance-oriented LPs and some 30 founders and executives from the sector.

Element says it will focus on what it calls a “high conviction investment strategy,” which will mean investing in only around a handful of companies a year (15 for the fund in total) but, it says, providing a “high level of support” to its portfolio.

So far it has backed B2B fintech firms across the U.K. and Europe, including Hepster (total raised $10 million), the embedded insurance platform out of Germany which I recently reported on; Billhop (total raised $6.7 million), the B2B payment network out of Sweden; Coincover (total raised $11.6 million), a cryptocurrency recovery service out of the U.K.; and Minna (total raised $25 million), the subscription management platform out of Sweden.

Speaking to me over a call, McFadgen, partner at Element Ventures, said: “Stephen and I have been investing in B2B fintech together for quite a long time. In 2018 we had the opportunity to start element and Spencer came on board in 2019. So Element as an independent venture firm is really a continuation of a strategy we’ve been involved in for a long time.”

Gibson added: “We are quite convinced by the European movement and the breakthrough these fintech and insurtech firms in Europe are having. Insurance has been a desert for innovation and that is changing. And you can see that we’re sort of trying to build a network around companies that have those breakthrough moments and provide not just capital but all the other things we think are part of the story. Building the company from A to C and D is the area that we try and roll our sleeves up and help these firms.”

Element says it also will be investing in the U.S. and Asia.

Square to buy ‘buy now, pay later’ giant Afterpay in $29B deal

By Mary Ann Azevedo

In a blockbuster deal that rocks the fintech world, Square announced today that it is acquiring Australian buy now, pay later giant Afterpay in a $29 billion all-stock deal.

The purchase price is based on the closing price of Square common stock on July 30, which was $247.26. The transaction is expected to close in the first quarter of 2022, contingent upon certain closing conditions. It values Afterpay at more than 30% premium to its latest closing price of A$96.66.

Square co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey said in a statement that the two fintech behemoths “have a shared purpose.”

“We built our business to make the financial system more fair, accessible, and inclusive, and Afterpay has built a trusted brand aligned with those principles,” he said in the statement. “Together, we can better connect our Cash App and Seller ecosystems to deliver even more compelling products and services for merchants and consumers, putting the power back in their hands.”

The combination of the two companies would create a payments giant unlike any other. Over the past 18 months, the buy now, pay later space has essentially exploded, appealing especially to younger generations drawn to the idea of not using credit cards or paying interest and instead opting for the installment loans, which have become ubiquitous online and in retail stores.

As of June 30, Afterpay served more than 16 million consumers and nearly 100,000 merchants globally, including major retailers across industries such as fashion, homewares, beauty and sporting goods, among others.

The addition of Afterpay, the companies’ statement said, will “accelerate Square’s strategic priorities” for its Seller and Cash App ecosystems. Square plans to integrate Afterpay into its existing Seller and Cash App business units, so that even “the smallest of merchants” can offer buy now, pay later at checkout. The integration will also give Afterpay consumers the ability to manage their installment payments directly in Cash App. Cash App customers will be able to find merchants and buy now, pay later (BNPL) offers directly within the app.

Afterpay’s co-founders and co-CEOs Anthony Eisen and Nick Molnar will join Square upon closure of the deal and help lead Afterpay’s respective merchant and consumer businesses. Square said it will appoint one Afterpay director to its board.

Shareholders of Afterpay will get 0.375 shares of Square Class A stock for every share they own. This implies a price of about A$126.21 per share based on Square’s Friday close, according to the companies.

Will there be more consolidation in the space? That remains to be seen, and Twitter is all certainly abuzz about what deals could be next. Here in the U.S., rival Affirm went public earlier this year. On July 30, shares closed at $56.32, significantly lower than its opening price and 52-week-high of $146.90. Meanwhile, European competitor Klarna — which is growing rapidly in the U.S. — in June raised another $639 million at a staggering post-money valuation of $45.6 billion.

No doubt the BNPL fight for the U.S. consumer is only heating up with this deal.

Chilean fintech Xepelin secures $230M in debt and equity from Kaszek, high-profile angels

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Chilean startup Xepelin, which has created a financial services platform for SMEs in Latin America, has secured $30 million in equity and $200 million in credit facilities.

LatAm venture fund Kaszek Ventures led the equity portion of the financing, which also included participation from partners of DST Global and a slew of other firms and founders/angel investors. LatAm- and U.S.-based asset managers and hedge funds — including Chilean pension funds — provided the credit facilities. In total over its lifetime, Xepelin has raised over $36 million in equity and $250 million in asset-backed facilities.

Also participating in the round were Picus Capital; Kayak Ventures; Cathay Innovation; MSA Capital; Amarena; FJ Labs; Gilgamesh and Kavak founder and CEO Carlos Garcia; Jackie Reses, executive chairman of Square Financial Services; Justo founder and CEO Ricardo Weder; Tiger Global Management Partner John Curtius; GGV’s Hans Tung; and Gerry Giacoman, founder and CEO of Clara, among others.

Nicolás de Camino and Sebastian Kreis founded Xepelin in mid-2019 with the mission of changing the fact that “only 5% of companies in all LatAm countries have access to recurring financial services.”

“We want all SMEs in LatAm to have access to financial services and capital in a fair and efficient way,” the pair said.

Xepelin is built on a SaaS model designed to give SMEs a way to organize their financial information in real time. Embedded in its software is a way for companies to apply for short-term working capital loans “with just three clicks, and receive the capital in a matter of hours,” the company claimed.

It has developed an AI-driven underwriting engine, which the execs said gives it the ability to make real-time loan approval decisions.

“Any company in LatAm can onboard in just a few minutes and immediately access a free software that helps them organize their information in real time, including cash flow, revenue, sales, tax, bureau info — sort of a free CFO SaaS,” de Camino said. “The circle is virtuous: SMEs use Xepelin to improve their financial habits, obtain more efficient financing, pay their obligations, and collaborate effectively with clients and suppliers, generating relevant impacts in their industries.”

The fintech currently has over 4,000 clients in Chile and Mexico, which currently has a growth rate “four times faster” than when Xepelin started in Chile. Over the past 22 months, it has loaned more than $400 million to SMBs in the two countries. It currently has a portfolio of active loans for $120 million and an asset-backed facility for more than $250 million.

Overall, the company has been seeing a growth rate of 30% per month, the founders said. It has 110 employees, up from 20 a year ago.

Xepelin has more than 60 partnerships (a number that it said is growing each week) with midmarket corporate companies, allowing for their suppliers to onboard to its platform for free and gain access to accounts payable, revenue-based financing. The company also sells its portfolio of non-recourse loans to financial partners, which it says mitigates credit risk exposure and enhances its platform and data play.

“When we talk about creating the largest digital bank for SMEs in LatAm, we are not saying that our goal is to create a bank; perhaps we will never ask for the license to have one, and to be honest, everything we do, we do it differently from the banks, something like a non-bank, a concept used today to exemplify focus,” the founders said.

Both de Camino and Kreis said they share a passion for making financial services more accessible to SMEs all across Latin America and have backgrounds rooted deep in different areas of finance.

“Our goal is to scale a platform that can solve the true pains of all SMEs in LatAm, all in one place that also connects them with their entire ecosystem, and above all, democratized in such a way that everyone can access it,” Kreis said, “regardless of whether you are a company that sells billions of dollars or just a thousand dollars, getting the same service and conditions.”

For now, the company is nearly exclusively focused on the B2B space, but in the future, it believes several of its services “will be very useful for all SMEs and companies in LatAm.” 

“Xepelin has developed technology and data science engines to deliver financing to SMBs in Latin America in a seamless way,” Nicolas Szekasy, co-founder and managing partner at Kaszek Ventures, said in a statement.The team has deep experience in the sector and has proven a perfect fit of their user-friendly product with the needs of the market.”

Chile was home to another large funding earlier this week. NotCo, a food technology company making plant-based milk and meat replacements, closed on a $235 million Series D round that gives it a $1.5 billion valuation.

Airtel Africa gets an extra $200M for its mobile money business from QIA

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Three months ago, Mastercard invested $100 million in Airtel Mobile Commerce BV (AMC BV) — the mobile money business of telecom Airtel Africa. This was two weeks after it also received $200 million from TPG’s Rise Fund.

Today, the African telecoms operator has announced that it has secured another investment for its mobile money arm. The investor? Qatar Holding LLC, an affiliate of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), the sovereign wealth fund of the State of Qatar with over $300 billion in assets. The Middle Eastern corporation is set to invest $200 million into AMC BV through a secondary purchase of shares from Airtel Africa.

AMC BV is an Airtel Africa subsidiary and the holding company for several of Airtel Africa’s mobile money operations across 14 African countries, including Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria. The mobile money arm operates one of the largest financial services on the continent. It provides users access to mobile wallets, support for international money transfers, loans and virtual credit cards.

According to a statement released by the telecoms operator, the proceeds of the investment will be used to reduce debt and invest in network and sales infrastructure in the respective operating countries. The deal will close in two tranches — $150 million invested at the first close, most likely in August. The remaining $50 million will be invested at second close.

Airtel Africa claims QIA will hold a minority stake while it continues to hold the majority stake. This transaction still values Airtel Africa at $2.65 billion on a cash and debt-free basis like other deals. However, what’s different this time is that QIA is entitled to appoint a director to AMC BV’s board and “to certain customary information and minority protection rights.”

Airtel Africa’s most recent report for Q1 2021 shows signs of growth. The telecoms operator saw a year on year revenue growth of 53.7%, pushed by a 24.6% growth in customer base to 23.1 million. Transaction value went up 64.4% to $14.7 billion ($59 billion annualised); and EBITDA stood at $60 million ($240 million annualised) at a margin of 48.8%. The company also generated $124 million in revenue ($496 million annualised), while its profits before tax year-on-year for Q1 2021 stood at $185 million.

Mansoor bin Ebrahim Al-Mahmoud, CEO of QIA, said the sovereign’s wealth fund investment in Airtel Africa would help promote financial inclusion in Sub-Saharan Africa. “Airtel Money plays a critical role in facilitating economic activity, including for customers without access to traditional financial services. We firmly believe in its mission to expand these efforts over the coming years,” he added.

In February, Airtel Africa first made it known that it wanted to sell a minority stake in AMC BV to raise cash and sell off some assets. The subsequent month, it sold off telecommunication towers in Madagascar and Malawi to Helios Towers for $119 million and raised $500 million from outside investors.

PayPal’s new ‘superapp,’ to include messaging, is ready to launch

By Sarah Perez

PayPal’s plan to morph itself into a “superapp” has been given a go for launch.

According to PayPal CEO Dan Schulman, speaking to investors during this week’s second-quarter earnings call, the initial version of PayPal’s new consumer digital wallet app is now “code complete” and the company is preparing to slowly ramp up. Over the next several months, PayPal expects to be fully ramped up in the U.S., with new payment services, financial services, commerce and shopping tools arriving every quarter.

The company has spoken for some time about its “superapp” ambitions — a shift in product direction that would make PayPal a U.S.-based version of something like China’s WeChat or Alipay or India’s Paytm. Like those apps, PayPal aims to offer a host of consumer services under one roof, beyond just mobile payments.

In previous quarters, PayPal said these new features may include things like enhanced direct deposit, check cashing, budgeting tools, bill pay, crypto support, subscription management, and buy now, pay later functionality. It also said it would integrate commerce, thanks to the mobile shopping tools acquired by way of its $4 billion Honey acquisition in 2019.

So far, PayPal has continued to run Honey as a standalone application, website and browser extension, but the superapp could incorporate more of its deal-finding functions, price-tracking features and other benefits.

On Wednesday’s earnings call, Schulman revealed the superapp would have a few other features as well, including high-yield savings, early access to direct deposit funds and messaging functionality outside of peer-to-peer payments — meaning you could chat with family and friends directly through the app’s user interface.

PayPal hadn’t announced its plans to include a messaging component until now, but the feature makes sense in terms of how people often combine chat and peer-to-peer payments today. For example, someone may want to make a personal request for the funds instead of just sending an automated request through an app. Or, after receiving payment, a user may want to respond with a “thank you,” or other acknowledgment. Currently, these conversations take place outside of the payment app itself on platforms like iMessage. Now, that could change.

“We think that’s going to drive a lot of engagement on the platform,” said Schulman. “You don’t have to leave the platform to message back and forth.”

With the increased user engagement, the company expects to see a bump in average revenue per active account.

Schulman also hinted at “additional crypto capabilities,” which were not detailed. However, PayPal earlier this month increased the crypto purchase limit from $20,000 to $100,000 for eligible PayPal customers in the U.S., with no annual purchase limit. The company also this year made it possible for consumers to check out at millions of online businesses using their cryptocurrencies, by first converting the crypto to cash then settling with the merchant in U.S. dollars.

Though the app’s code is now complete, Schulman said the plan is to continue to iterate on the product experience, noting that the initial version will not be “the be-all and end-all.” Instead, the app will see steady releases and new functionality on a quarterly basis.

However, he did say that early on, the new features would include the high-yield savings, improved bill pay with a better user experience, and more billers and aggregators, as well as early access to direct deposit, budgeting tools and the new two-way messaging feature.

To integrate all the new features into the superapp, PayPal will undergo a major overhaul of its user interface.

“Obviously, the [user experience] is being redesigned,” Schulman noted. “We’ve got rewards and shopping. We’ve got a whole giving hub around crowdsourcing, giving to charities. And then, obviously, buy now, pay later will be fully integrated into it. … The last time I counted, it was like 25 new capabilities that we’re going to put into the superapp.”

The digital wallet app will also be personalized to the end user, so no two apps are the same. This will be done using both artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities to “enhance each customer’s experiences and opportunities,” said Schulman.

PayPal delivered an earnings beat in the second quarter with $6.24 billion in revenue, versus the $6.27 billion Wall Street expected, and earnings per share of $1.15, versus the $1.12 expected. Total payment volume from merchant customers also jumped 40% to $311 billion, while analysts had projected $295.2 billion. But the company’s stock slipped due to a lowered outlook for Q3, impacted by eBay’s transition to its own managed payments service.

In addition, PayPal gained 11.4 million net new active accounts in the quarter, to reach 403 million total active accounts.

WhenThen’s no-code payments platform attracts $6M from European VCs Stride and Cavalry

By Mike Butcher

The payments space – amazingly – remains up for grabs for startups. Yes dear reader, despite the success of Stripe, there seems to be a new payments startup virtually every other day. It’s a mess out there! The accelerated growth of e-commerce due to the pandemic means payments are now a booming space. And here comes another one, with a twist.

WhenThen has built a no-code payment operations platform that, they claim, streamlines the payment processes “of merchants of any kind”.  It says its platform can autonomously orchestrate, monitor, improve and manage all customer payments and payments ops.

The startup’s opportunity has arisen because service providers across different verticals increasingly want to get into open banking and provide their own payment solutions and financial services.

Founded 6 months ago, WhenThen has now raised $6 million, backed by European VCs Stride and Cavalry.

The founders, Kirk Donohoe, Eamon Doyle and Dave Brown  are three former Mastercard Payment veterans.

Based “out of Dublin, CEO Donohoe told me: “We see traditional businesses embracing e-comm, and e-comm merchants now operating multiple business models such as trade supply, marketplace, subscription, and more. There is no platform that makes it easy for such businesses to create and operate multiple payment flows to support multiple business models in one place – that’s where we step in.”

He added: “WhenThen is helping ecommerce digital platforms build advanced payment flows and payment automation, in minutes as opposed to months. When you start to integrate different payment methods, different payment gateways, how you want the payment to move from collection through to payout gets very, very complex. I’ve been doing this for over a decade now, as an entrepreneur building different businesses that had to accept collect and pay payments.”

He said his founding team “had to build very complex payment flows for large merchants, airlines, hotels, issuers, and we just found it was ridiculous that you have to continue to do the same thing over and over again. So we decided to come up with WhenThen as a better way to be able to help you build those flows in minutes.”

Claude Ritter, managing partner at Cavalry said: “Basic payment orchestration platforms have been around for some time, focusing mostly on maximizing payment acceptance by optimizing routing. WhenThen provides the first end-to-end payment flow platform to equip businesses with the opportunity to control every stage of the payment flow from payment intent to payout.”

WhenThen supports a wide range of popular payment providers such as Stripe, Braintree, Adyen, Authorize.net, Checkout.com, etc., and a variety of alternative and locally preferred payment methods such as Klarna Affirm, PayPal, BitPay.

“For brave merchants considering global reach and operating multiple business models concurrently, I believe choosing the right payment ops platform will become as important as choosing the right e-commerce platform. Building your entire ecomm experience tightly coupled to a single payment processor is a hard correction to make down the line – you need a payment flow platform like WhenThen,” added Fred Destin, founder of Stride.VC.

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