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How startups can leverage elastic services for cost optimization

By Walter Thompson
Joey Lei Contributor
Joey Lei is director of service management at Synoptek, a global systems integrator and managed services provider. Prior to joining Synoptek, he was a lead product manager for Dell EMC’s Data Protection Division and was a founding product manager for Dell EMC PowerProtect Data Manager, Dell EMC’s newest generation data protection and data management solution.

Due to COVID-19, business continuity has been put to the test for many companies in the manufacturing, agriculture, transport, hospitality, energy and retail sectors. Cost reduction is the primary focus of companies in these sectors due to massive losses in revenue caused by this pandemic. The other side of the crisis is, however, significantly different.

Companies in industries such as medical, government and financial services, as well as cloud-native tech startups that are providing essential services, have experienced a considerable increase in their operational demands — leading to rising operational costs. Irrespective of the industry your company belongs to, and whether your company is experiencing reduced or increased operations, cost optimization is a reality for all companies to ensure a sustained existence.

One of the most reliable measures for cost optimization at this stage is to leverage elastic services designed to grow or shrink according to demand, such as cloud and managed services. A modern product with a cloud-native architecture can auto-scale cloud consumption to mitigate lost operational demand. What may not have been obvious to startup leaders is a strategy often employed by incumbent, mature enterprises — achieving cost optimization by leveraging managed services providers (MSPs). MSPs enable organizations to repurpose full-time staff members from impacted operations to more strategic product lines or initiatives.

Why companies need cost optimization in the long run

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Omidyar-backed Spero Ventures invests in Mexico City’s Mati, a startup pitching ID-verification

By Jonathan Shieber

Spero Ventures, the venture capital firm backed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, has gone to Mexico City for its latest investment, backing the identity verification technology developer Mati.

Launched in San Francisco, the two co-founders Filip Victor and Amaury Soviche, decided to relocate to Mexico because of its proximity to big, untapped markets in Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia.

“After developing the technology in San Francisco, we chose to start commercially in Latin America. It has been the perfect petri dish for us: the markets here, especially in Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, are very exciting. These countries have the highest payments fraud rates in the world, which makes their identity issues the most interesting,” said Victor in a statement.

The rise of a new generation of fintech startup across Latin America creates a unique opportunity for Mati in a number of markets — and so does a new generation of financial services regulations, the company said. “We view the fintech regulations sweeping across LatAm as an opportunity to help a lot of promising fintechs and marketplaces get to the next level”, Victor said.

Already working across three countries, with operations in Mexico City, St. Petersburg, and San Francisco, Mati is an example of the global scope that even very early stage companies can now achieve.

Identity verification is at the core of much of the modern gig economy and much of the social networking defining life during a pandemic.

The company said it will use the capital investment — it would not disclose the amount of money it raised — to continue product development and expand its geographic footprint.

The scope of the identity verification problem is what brought Spero to the table to discuss an investment, according to a statement from Shripriya Mahesh, the founding partner at Spero.

“For us, identity is foundational to scaling the vast array of gig economy, fintech, social, and commerce platforms that represent our collective future of work,” Mahesh said. “The ability to have safe and trusted interactions at an unprecedented scale, especially with people in places where national identity infrastructure is limited, will create opportunities and global connections we can’t yet even forecast.”

Newton Mail founder returns with launch of personal net worth tracker, Kubera

By Sarah Perez

Serial entrepreneur Rohit Nadhani, who last sold his Newton email app to Essential in 2018— an app so popular it’s been saved from shutting down multiple times — is today launching a new startup, Kubera. The service aims to offer an alternative to using a spreadsheet to keep track of your assets, investments, cryptocurrencies, debts, insurance, and other important documents that would need to be transferred to a loved one in the event of your death.

The founder was inspired to create Kubera — a reference to the Indian “lord of wealth” — due to a traumatic personal experience. While swimming in Costa Rica, he was caught in a riptide and had to be rescued. After coming home, the first thing he did was to start putting together a list of all his assets to share with his wife in the event of his death.

The task was fairly difficult, as it turned out, as that list now included more than just real estate, stocks and bonds, retirement accounts, and insurance.

Nadhani realized he also wanted to list other assets like crypto investments, collectibles, precious metals, private and foreign investments, trademarks and other digital assets, as well as debts owed him — like loans he had made to family and friends.

Plus, he wanted a few more features that a simple spreadsheet could provide — like the ability to automatically update the value of the assets, similar to Intuit’s Mint, and basic reporting. More importantly, he didn’t want to share access to his personal net worth data and accounts unless it was absolutely necessary.

Existing solutions didn’t meet Nadhani’s needs, he said, as they used outdated technology, lacked the features he wanted, or used users’ data to make budgeting or investment recommendations. That, along with feedback from friends who said they were also stuck using spreadsheets for this task, prompted the founder to create his own solution with Kubera.

To do so, he reached out to former colleague Manoj Marathayil, the founding engineer at Nadhani’s two prior companies, CloudMagic (Newton) and Webyog, which exited to IDERA in 2018. Also joining Kubera is the former Head of Product & Design from Newton Mail at CloudMagic, Umesh Gopinath.

Kubera is launching today as a custom-built solution for the task of listing your assets, both traditional and non-traditional alike.

To use the service, you begin by listing your assets in a simple table, then add details like cost, value, or the documents associated with them, if available. You can either opt to update the values in the table as you go, or you can connect assets to your online accounts to update their value automatically.

 

The service uses trusted financial data aggregation services like Plaid and Yodlee to make the connections, which means it has “read-only” access to your financial data — Kubera cannot make transactions on your behalf. This also allows it to support connections to over 10,000 banks across the world.

The service also uses the open standard AES-256 encryption algorithm to encrypt user data, requires HTTPS on all web pages, uses HSTS to require browsers use only secure connections, and supports 2-step verification through Google Sign-in with other 2-step options launching soon.

The company’s business model is a subscription service, which allows it to generate revenue without having to share data with a third-party or advertiser. The basic service is free to use if you don’t want to automatically update your asset values. If you do, it’s $10 per month.

Once the initial entry has been done, Kubera will periodically remind you to update asset values and check in. Its “life beat” check will track if you’ve been inactive for a certain number of days (specified by you during setup) and try to reach you.

If you don’t respond to Kubera’s attempts to reach you, it will then try to reach your beneficiary by way of email and text, if provided. The service sends an email with all the information you’ve provided in a downloadable format to your beneficiary. If they don’t respond after several reminders, Kubera will then reach out to your backup contact, a “Trusted Angel.”

Kubera to some extent competes with services like Mint, YNAB and other online budgeting tools. But these services don’t offer the same extensive net worth tracking and have a different focus. It also competes with financial advisor and wealth management companies, like Personal Capital. But instead of pushing you to connect with a financial advisor or other paid services, Kubera isn’t doling out investing advice.

Further down the road, Kubera may expand into estate planning — like helping with wills or trusts, or connecting you to partners who can provide these services. But for the time being, the service is meant to be used in conjunction with users’ existing wills and trusts.

The bootstrapped startup is a five-person team. At launch, Kubera is offering 100-day free trials, allowing you the time to organize assets before making a decision on subscribing to the service.

 

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

By Manish Singh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jonathan Shieber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Steve O'Hear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TikTok parent ByteDance leads $6M round in financial AI startup Lingxi

By Rita Liao

TikTok’s parent company ByteDance has added Lingxi, a Beijing-based startup that applies machine intelligence to financial services such as debt collection and insurance sales, to its ever-expanding portfolio of investments.

The AI startup has raised a $6.2 million Series A round co-led by ByteDance and Rocket Internet, the German accelerator that has incubated e-commerce giants Lazada and Jumia. Junsan Capital and GSR Ventures also participated in the round, which officially closed in April.

This marks one of ByteDance’s first investment deals for purely monetary returns, rather than for an immediate strategic purpose. However, with ByteDance’s recent foray into the financial services domain, that relationship could shift over time.

ByteDance as an investor

TikTok’s parent company previously focused narrowly on strategic deals, with the aim of leveraging these smaller startups’ technology, industry know-how, talents and other resources for its own business objectives. The most prominent example is perhaps its acquisition of Musical.ly, through which TikTok gained access to tens of millions of American users and a reputed product team led by founder Alex Zhu.

In 2019, ByteDance’s strategic investment team began its search for venture capital-style funding opportunities. Spearheading the effort is former Sequoia China investor Yang Jie.

There are, however, clear strategic synergies in ByteDance’s first financial investment. The online entertainment giant has already received an insurance broker license and is in the process of obtaining one for consumer finance, according to Lingxi founder and chief executive Zhongpu “Vincent” Xia. When asked if he sees ByteDance eventually deploying Lingxi’s machine intelligence in its future financial services, Xia responded, “Why not?”

ByteDance declined to comment on its entry into the financial sector.

Despite billing themselves as AI-first companies, both ByteDance and Lingxi recognize the essential role of humans before AI reaches the desired level of sophistication. ByteDance today relies on thousands of human auditors to screen content published across its TikTok, Douyin, Today’s Headlines and other apps. Likewise, Lingxi is labor-intensive and manages 200 customer representatives aided by a team of 30 AI experts.

The core of Lingxi is to “augment humans, not to replace them,” said Xia in a phone interview with TechCrunch .

Too big to change

Xia was leading a team of 90 people to work on Baidu’s commercialization of AI when he had an epiphany to do something of his own. He was convinced that AI would enhance humans’ cognitive capability, he said, the same way the steam engine had boosted humans’ physical production a century ago. The Chinese search pioneer has widely been perceived as the poster child of the nation’s booming AI industry because of its early and outsized investment in the technology, but by the end of 2017, Xia felt Baidu’s model of touting AI as a tool wasn’t working.

“We hit a bottleneck. The technology [AI] wasn’t mature enough yet, which means you have to combine it with a big team of people to perform manual tasks like data labeling, so you not only need to hire AI experts, professionals in the business you serve, but also a large number of workers to label data and train the machines,” he said.

Xia is among the industry practitioners who recognize the limitation of machines. While computers can outperform humans in completing repetitive, menial tasks, they remain unreliable in handling complex human emotions and can lead to counterproductive and even detrimental repercussions were they left with full autonomy.

The result of relying completely on machines is “client dissatisfaction,” said Xia. “The client might be very happy for the first few months, but as its business evolves and new needs arise, it will start to realize that the so-called machines are getting dumber and dumber. Artificial intelligence becomes artificial retardedness.”

Lingxi staff at work during the COVID-19 pandemic

Most self-proclaimed AI startups in China make money by selling bots akin to how old-fashioned software was sold with pre-programmed objectives, allowing little room for iteration or upgrade later on. Lingxi, in contrast, is service-based and takes a commission from client revenues.

Take debt collection — Lingxi’s primary focus at this stage — for example. When a client, a financial affiliate of one of China’s biggest internet firms, assigned Lingxi with 1.9 million yuan (about $270,000) worth of debt, the startup’s algorithms first determined how much the machines could handle. It turned out that the robots recovered 1.7 million yuan and left the rest of the cases, which Xia categorized as “irrational and complicated,” to human staff. By Q1 2020, Lingxi was able to achieve 2.5 times the average output of debt collection agencies, and it aims to ramp up the ratio to 4 times by the end of the year.

Human control

Conventionally, a company selling AI tools deals only with the IT department from its clients. Lingxi works with the business department instead. In the client’s eye, the AI startup is no different from a traditional debt collector. In practice, Lingxi is a debt collector with souped-up productivity enabled by computing power.

“The client doesn’t care what tools we use. They care only about the result,” said Xia. “The difference in working with these two departments is that the one in charge of the actual business is result-driven and will give us much stricter KPIs.”

The immediate impact of this model is that the AI-driven vendor must keep improving its algorithms, manually sampling and correcting machine decisions to improve their accuracy. “We might not be making money in the beginning, but over time, our output will certainly surpass those of our competitors.”

The service-oriented approach pushes Lingxi to get its hands dirty, upending the image of tech startups coding away in their sleek and comfortable offices. Its engineers are asked to regularly talk to clients about their real-life business challenges, whereas its customer representatives are required to attend training in how AI works.

“Fusion is what defines our company culture,” said Xia introspectively. “The technical team needs to understand business practices. Vice versa, our business people need to understand technology.”

Coveted sector

It’s not hard to see why Xia chose to target China’s financial services industry. The booming sector is lucrative and tends to be more progressive in embracing technological innovations. Competition in fintech runs high, leveling the playing field for newer entrants against those that are more established.

“There’s a saying in the Chinese tech world that goes: If you can conquer the financial industry, you have conquered the business-to-business world,” said the founder.

The three-year-old startup is targeting 40-80 million yuan ($5.6 million to $11.3 million) in revenue in 2020. It’s one of the few businesses that have, against the odds, thrived under the COVID-19 pandemic because more people are taking out loans to tide the looming economic downturn.

Meanwhile, traditional debt collectors are struggling to hire during city lockdowns due to travel bans across the country, which started to ease in March, while machine-only vendors still fail to satisfy the whole range of client demands. That gave Lingxi a big window to onboard a significant number of new clients, prompting it to hire new staff.

General Atlantic to invest $870M in India’s Reliance Jio Platforms

By Manish Singh

Mukesh Ambani’s Jio Platforms has agreed to sell 1.34% stake to General Atlantic, the latest in a series of deals the top Indian telecom operator has secured in recent weeks.

On Sunday, New York-headquartered private equity firm General Atlantic said it would invest $869.8 million in the Indian telecom operator, a subsidiary of India’s most valued firm (Reliance Industries), joining Facebook, Silver Lake, and Vista Equity Partners that have also made sizeable bets on the three-and-a-half-year old Indian firm.

General Atlantic’s investment values Jio Platforms at $65 billion — the same valuation implied by the Silver Lake and Vista deals and a 12.5% premium over Facebook’s deal, the Indian firm said.

Sunday’s announcement further illustrates the growing appeal of Jio Platforms, which has raised $8.85 billion in the past one month by selling about 14.7% stake in the firm, to foreign investors that are looking for a slice in the fast-growing world’s second largest internet market.

General Atlantic, a high profile investor in consumer tech space that has invested in dozens of firms such as Airbnb, Alibaba, Ant Financial, Box, ByteDance, Facebook, Slack, Snapchat, and Uber, has also been a key investor in India. It has cut checks to several Indian startups including NoBroker, a Bangalore-based startup that helps those looking to rent or buy an apartment connect directly with property owners, edtech giants Unacademy and Byju’s, payments processor BillDesk, and National Stock Exchange of India.

Reliance Industries chairman Ambani, who poured more than $30 billion to build Jio Platforms, said the telecom network would “leverage General Atlantic’s proven global expertise and strategic insights across 40 years of technology investing.”

“General Atlantic shares our vision of a digital society for India and strongly believes in the transformative power of digitization in enriching the lives of 1.3 billion Indians,” he added.

Reliance Jio

Prepaid SIM cards of Reliance Jio at a retail store. (Photo: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images)

Launched in the second half of 2016, Reliance Jio upended India’s telecommunications industry with cut-rate data plans and free voice calls. Jio Platforms, a subsidiary of Reliance Industries, operates the telecom venture, called Jio Infocomm, that has amassed 388 million subscribers since its launch to become the nation’s top telecom operator.

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

“In just three and a half years, Jio has had a transformational impact in democratizing data and digital services, propelling India to be positioned as a leading global digital economy,” said Sandeep Naik, MD and Head of India & Southeast Asia at General Atlantic, in a statement.

The new capital would help Ambani, India’s richest man, further cement his last year’s commitment to investors when he said he aimed to cut Reliance’s net debt of about $21 billion to zero by early 2021. Its core business — oil refining and petrochemicals — has been hard hit amid the coronavirus outbreak. Its net profit in the quarter that ended on March 31 fell by 37%.

In the company’s earnings call last month, Ambani said several firms had expressed interest in buying stakes in Jio Platforms in the wake of the deal with Facebook . Bloomberg reported last week that Saudi Wealth Fund was also in talks with Ambani for a stake in Jio Platforms.

Facebook said that other than offering capital to Jio Platforms for a 9.99% stake in the firm, it would work with the Indian giant on a number of areas starting with e-commerce. Days later, JioMart, an e-commerce venture run by India’s most valued firm, began testing an “ordering system” on WhatsApp, the most popular smartphone app in India with over 400 million active users in the world’s second largest internet market.

Why COVID-19 could delay Interswitch, Africa’s next big IPO

By Jake Bright

The economic effects of COVID-19 could delay Africa’s next big IPO — that of Nigerian fintech unicorn Interswitch.

If so, it wouldn’t be the first time the Lagos-based payments company’s plans for going public were postponed; the tech world has been anticipating Interswitch’s stock market debut since 2016.

For the continent’s innovation ecosystem, there’s a lot riding on the digital finance company’s IPO. After e-commerce venture Jumia, it would become only the second listing of a VC-backed African tech company on a major exchange. And Interswitch’s stock market debut — when it occurs — could bring more investor attention and less controversy to the region’s startup scene.

What is Interswitch?

TechCrunch reached out to Interswitch on the window for listing, but the company declined to comment. The tech firm’s path from startup to IPO aspirant traces back to the vision of founder Mitchell Elegbe, a Nigerian electrical engineering graduate whose entire career has pretty much been Interswitch.

Africa’s tech scene is still fairly young, but it does have a timeline with several definitive points. An early one would be the success of mobile money in East Africa, with the launch of Safaricom’s M-Pesa in 2007. Another is the notable wave of VC-backed startups and founders that launched around 2010.

Interswitch CEO Mitchell Elegbe (Photo Credits: Interswitch)

With Interswtich, Elegbe pre-dated both by a number of years, founding his fintech company back in 2002 to connect Nigeria’s largely disconnected banking system. The firm became a pioneer of the infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s economy.

Interswitch created the first electronic switch whereby Nigerian financial institutions could communicate and thereby operate ATMs and point of sales operations. The company now provides much of the rails for Nigeria’s online banking system.

Africa Roundup: Visa connects to M-Pesa, Flutterwave enters e-commerce

By Jake Bright

It seems the demand for Safaricom’s M-Pesa payment product never eases. Since its 2007 launch in Kenya, the fintech app has commanded over 70% of the mobile money market in that country. When COVID-19 hit the East African nation of 53 million in March, the Kenyan Central Bank turned to M-Pesa as a public health tool to reduce use of cash.

And last month, one of the world’s financial services giants — Visa — connected M-Pesa to its global network.

Visa and Safaricom — which is Kenya’s largest telecom and operator of M-Pesa — announced a partnership on payments and tech.

The arrangement opens up M-Pesa’s own extensive financial services network in East Africa to Visa’s global merchant and card network across 200 countries.

The companies will also collaborate “on development of products that will support digital payments for M-Pesa customers.” The partnership is still subject to regulatory approval.

The details remain vague, but the payment providers also said they will use the collaboration to facilitate e-commerce.

Images Credits: Getty Images

On a continent that is still home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population, Kenya has one of the highest mobile-money penetration rates in the world. This is largely due to the dominance of M-Pesa in the country, which has 24.5 million customers and a network of 176,000 agents.

As we detailed in ExtraCrunch, Visa has been on a VC and partnership spree with African fintech companies. The global financial services giant has named working with the continent’s payments startups as core to its Africa expansion strategy.

One of those fintech ventures Visa has teamed up with, Flutterwave, launched an e-commerce product in April. The San Francisco and Lagos-based B2B payments company announced Flutterwave Store, a portal for African merchants to create digital shops to sell online.

The product is less Amazon  and more eBay — with no inventory or warehouse requirements. Flutterwave insists the move doesn’t represent any shift away from its core payments business.

The company accelerated the development of Flutterwave Store in response to COVID-19, which has brought restrictive measures to SMEs and traders operating in Africa’s largest economies.

After creating a profile, users can showcase inventory and link up to a payment option. For pickup and delivery, Flutterwave Store operates through existing third party logistics providers, such as Sendy in Kenya and Sendbox in Nigeria.

The service will start in 15 African countries and the only fees Flutterwave will charge (for now) are on payments. Otherwise, it’s free for SMEs to create an online storefront and for buyers and sellers to transact goods.

While the initiative is born out of the spread of coronavirus cases in Africa, it will continue beyond the pandemic. And Flutterwave’s CEO Olugbenga Agboola — aka GB — is adamant Flutterwave Store is not a pivot for the Y-Cominator backed fintech company.

“It’s not a direction change. We’re still a B2B payment infrastructure company. We are not moving into becoming an online retailer, and no we’re not looking to become Jumia,” he told TechCrunch .

In early stage startup activity, a relatively new company — Okra — has created a unique platform that allows it to generate revenue on both sides of the fintech aisle.

Founded in June 2019 by Nigerians Fara Ashiru Jituboh and David Peterside, the company refers to itself as a “super-connector API” with a platform that links bank accounts to third party applications.

Okra’s clients include fintech startups and large financial institutions in Nigeria. The company got the attention of TLcom Capital — a $71 million Africa focused VC firm —that backed Okra with $1 million in pre-seed funding. The Nigerian startup is using the funds to hire and expand to new markets in Africa, most likely Kenya .

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch               

Oriente raises $50 million to continue building its infrastructure for digital financial services

By Catherine Shu

Oriente, a Hong Kong-based startup that develops tech infrastructure for digital credit and other online financial services, has raised $50 million for its ongoing Series B round. The funding was led by Peter Lee, co-chairman of Henderson Land, one of Hong Kong’s largest property developers, with participation from investors including website development platform Wix.com.

Launched in 2017 by Geoff Prentice, one of Skype’s co-founders, Hubert Tai and Lawrence Chu, Oriente focuses on markets that are underserved by traditional financial institutions. The new funding will be used for growth in Oriente’s existing markets, the Philippines and Indonesia, and expansion into new countries including Vietnam.

It will also be used to continue building Oriente’s technology, which uses big data analytics to help merchants increase sales conversions and lower risk. Oriente has now raised over $160 million in equity and debt, including a $105 million round in November 2018.

While many large tech companies, including Grab, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Uber, Apple and Samsung, are looking at digital payments and other online financial services, they need the tech infrastructure to do so, and partners that can also help them handle regulations in different markets.

Oriente doesn’t compete with payment providers. Instead, it is “innovating credit as a service,” Prentice told TechCrunch, by building technology that allows offline and online merchants to launch digital credit solutions quickly.

Oriente “is the only company that is focusing on building an end-to-end digital financial services infrastructure,” he added, with services created for consumers, online and offline merchants, and enterprise clients.

For consumers, the startup currently offers two apps, Cashalo in the Philippines and Finmas in Indonesia, which it says has a combined 5 million users and over 1,000 merchants. Services include cash loans, online credit and working capital for small- to medium-sized enterprises.

Oriente says that in 2019, it saw a 700% year-over-year growth in transactions and served more than 4 million new users, while merchant partners had a more than 20% increase in sales volume.

Over the next few months, Oriente plans to expand its Pay Later digital credit feature and launch new growth capital solutions for small businesses that need financing. Oriente also has several partnerships in the works to expand its enterprise solutions for larger businesses and corporations.

In Vietnam, Oriente is currently beta testing a consumer platform similar to Cashalo and Finmas. It will offer online credit and financing, as well as other services in partnership with local companies.

Oriente has also started focusing on how to serve businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, since many merchants are coping with revenue declines, loss of users and cash flow issues.

“Over the past few weeks, we’ve reprioritized our corporate strategy to focus on the top opportunities within each market. We have also taken various steps to rebuild our organizations for optimized operational and financial efficiency in line with current and forecasted market conditions and our more focused strategy,” Prentice said.

“Our aim is not only to mitigate anticipated headwinds on liquidity but to demonstrate that our business has the potential to overcome and outperform the market in a recession—unlocking value for all stakeholders for years to come.”

Bill Gates details how his foundation shifted focus ‘almost entirely’ to addressing COVID-19

By Darrell Etherington

Microsoft founder Bill Gates spoke to the Financial Times (via Fast Company) about how the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has shifted “almost entirely” to working on addressing COVID-19, in the interest of making the post impact possible in the ongoing effort to contain and combat the global coronavirus pandemic. Gates told the FT that the spread of COVID-19 could have dire economic consequences which will result in more suffering globally than anyone could’ve anticipated, hence the need to address it with the full weight of the resources of one of the world’s most well-capitalized charitable organizations.

The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation has been funding vaccine trials, clinical studies and basic research related to drug and therapy development for COVID-19 since basically the disease debuted on the world scene. It means that the exiting mandate of the foundation, which includes seeking to eradicate polio and AIDS worldwide, will be temporarily slowed or paused while the organization focuses its resources on the pandemic, but Gates’ decision to focus the group’s significant resources here should only emphasize the seriousness of the situation.

The foundation’s temporary shift is actually, long-term, the best way it can serve its core goals, since the global impact of the coronavirus crisis is likely to have repercussions for every aspect of human life, including access to medical care, testing and therapies, not to mention food and basic necessities. Curbing the disease’s spread early could have the most significant impact in economies ill-prepared to deal with the fallout, and any impact there will eventually result in better ability to work on eradicating those other diseases in a reasonable timeline, instead of undermining local infrastructure and allowing them a longer foothold.

In a 2015 TED talk, Gates predicted the coming of a global outbreak and urged global health organizations and governments to come together to prepare for what to do in case of a large, widespread contagion. Gates was working mostly from the perspective of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, which exposed many of the existing gaps and flaws in the system, but his advice seems prescient in retrospect.

Unfortunately, Gates has been subject to a lot of spreading misinformation and bogus conspiracy theory nonsense owing to heightened paranoia and activity among groups that normally peddle in this kind of falsehood. Based on this interview, Gates seems to essentially expect that as something of a matter of course for high-profile individuals, however, and it doesn’t appear to be impacting the foundation’s ability to focus on potential fixes.

Nigeria’s Okra raises $1M from TLcom connecting bank accounts to apps

By Jake Bright

A new Nigerian fintech venture, Okra, has racked up a unique mix of accomplishments in less than a year.

The Lagos based API developer created a product that generates revenues from both payment startups and established financial institutions.

Okra has raised $1 million in pre-seed funding from TLcom Capital — a $71 million Africa focused VC firm that rarely invests in early-stage companies or fintech.

The startup is also poised to enter new markets and it’s hiring.

Founded in June 2019 by Nigerians Fara Ashiru Jituboh and David Peterside, Okra casts itself as a motherboard for the continent’s 21st century financial system.

“We’re building a super-connector API that…allows individuals to connect their bank accounts directly to third party applications. And that’s their African bank accounts starting in the largest market in Africa, Nigeria,” said Ashiru Jituboh.

As a sector, fintech has become the continent’s highest funded tech space, receiving the bulk of an estimated $2 billion in VC that went to African startups in 2019. Those ventures, and a number of the continent’s established banks, are in a race to build market share through financial inclusion.

By several estimates — including The Global Findex Database — the continent is home to the largest percentage of the world’s unbanked population, with a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

With 54 countries, 1.2 billion people and thousands of relatively young startups, there are a lot of moving parts in Africa’s fintech space. Similar to U.S. company Plaid, Okra is shaping a platform that connects accounts and financial data to banking apps into a revenue generating product.

With Africa’s largest population of 200 million people, Nigeria serves as a major financial hub — but there’s still a disconnect between fintech apps and banks, according to Okra’s Ashiru Jituboh.

“Here in this market there’s no way to directly connect your bank account through an API or directly to an application,” she said.

Okra offers several paid packages for those types of integrations and opens up the code to its five product categories —  authorization, balance, transactions, identity and accounts — to developers.

Image Credits: Okra

Okra has already created a diverse client list that includes mobile payments startup PalmPay, insurer Axa Mansard and Nigerian digital lender Renmoney.

The startup generates revenues through product fees and earns each time a user connects a bank account to a customer, according to Ashiru Jituboh.

On how the Okra differs from other well-funded fintech companies in Nigeria, such as Flutterwave or Interswitch, “The answer is we’re not doing payments, but what we’re doing is making processes with [payment providers] even smoother,” she said.

Ashiru Jituboh comes to her CEO position with a software engineering background and a strong connection to the U.S. Born in Nigeria, she grew up in and studied computer science in North Carolina.

She did stints in finance — JP Morgan Chase and Fidelity Investments — and then in tech companies before making the leap to founder. “I went to work in startups, but I was always employee number two or three,” said Ashiru Jituboh.

She decided to go all in on Okra after returning to Nigeria and noting the need for linking together the country’s emerging digital financial infrastructure.

“When we knew that it was a big addressable market is when we realized that all these fintech CEOs and CTOs were struggling with this use case,” she said.

Shortly after its launch, Okra attracted the attention of TLcom Capital in second quarter 2019, according to VC Andreata Muforo.

With offices in London, Lagos, and Nairobi, the group closed its $71 million Tide Africa fund this year. TLcom has focused primarily on Series A and later investments, including backing Kenyan agtech startup Twiga Foods and Nigerian trucking logistics company Kobo360.

In an interview last year, the fund’s managing partner, Maurizio Caio, explained that TLcom was steering more toward investments in infrastructure oriented tech companies and away from Africa’s more commoditized payments and lending startups.

The VC firm was attracted to Okra for its ability to serve the continent’s broader financial sector. “It’s a service that other fintechs can plug into and utilize, so it’s accelerating the growth of fintech across the continent…That to us was a big hook,” TLcom’s Andreata Muforo told TechCrunch on a call.

Founder Fara Ashiru Jituboh was also a factor in the fund making a $1 million pre-seed investment in Okra. “We found her to be very strong and also liked the fact that she’s a technical founder,” said Muforo. As part of the investments, she and TLcom Capital partner Ido Sum will join Okra’s board.

In addition to hiring fresh engineering talent, the startup aims to take its product offerings that connect bank accounts to apps to new African countries — though it would not disclose where or when.

“We’re looking at three target markets that our clients are already in,” said Ashiru Jituboh. Okra investor Andreata Muforo named Kenya — with one of the highest mobile money penetration rates in the world — as a likely candidate for the startup’s product services.

Clever Care Health Plan launches with a holistic healing spin on Medicare Advantage programs

By Jonathan Shieber

Angling for a slice of the multi-billion dollar Medicare Advantage market with a pitch to integrate holistic medical practitioners into its network of service providers has netted Clever Care Health Plan some big backers and a huge market opportunity, the company says.

The company has raised $23 million in a new round of funding from investors led by Norwest Partners for its unique take on how to create a new network of healthcare providers for potential Medicare Advantage beneficiaries.

Several healthcare startups have raised hundreds of millions of dollars to tackle the Medicare Advantage opportunity. These include companies like Bright Health, Clover Health, Devoted Health, and Oscar, but, to-date, none have tried to put an emphasis on cultural sensitivity and holistic healing that chief operating officer Myong Lee and his co-founders settled on.

Joining Lee in the launch of Clever Care’s services are chief executive David Firdaus and chief financial officer Hiep Pham. The three have a long history of working together at other health plans. 

We’re looking to have a really unique supplemental benefit on the Eastern Medicine side,” said Lee of the company’s pitch.

Of course, there’s one hitch. Whether the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will approve the treatments for coverage. ““All of this is predicated on CMS approval,” Lee acknowledged.

Already, CMS has identified some holistic medical treatments — notably acupuncture — as eligible for coverage, and Lee and his team are hoping that more approvals could be forthcoming. 

Lee said that the problem was particularly acute for California’s aging immigrant population, which does not necessarily feel comfortable accessing the current healthcare system. Often, these populations are comprised of people who don’t speak English very well and whose needs are going unmet by current providers.

Using his own parents as an example, he said, “There wasn’t anything from their perspective. Nothing that spoke to them from an Eastern Medicine perspective.”

As Norwest general partner Casper de Clerq noted, Medicare Advantage has grown to encompass roughly 35% of all Medicare recipients. “There are 64 million Medicare members and 22 million are on Medicare Advnatage,” de Clerq said. “As this market matures it’s going to become more and more specialized and more niche with different populations that are not properly served. This hyperlocal phenomenon will be more and more important.”

The company said it would use the capital to establish its California Medicare Advantage health plan and hire staff for its two offices in Little Saigon in Orange County and Arcadia in Los Angeles County. 

“Medicare spending was 15 percent of total federal spending in 2018 and is projected to nearly double due to the retirement of the Baby Boom Generation and the rapid growth of per capita healthcare costs,” said Sean Doolan, healthcare partner at Global Founders Capital, which joined the round alongside Norwest. “We are excited to partner with the Clever Care Health Plan team and fully believe in their bold vision to create a progressive and affordable Medicare Advantage plan that will dramatically expand access to high quality care for diverse communities.”

Tesla’s newest board member has a long stance against short selling

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla has added Hiromichi Mizuno as a new member to its board of directors and audit committee — the former chief investment officer of Japan’s $1.5 trillion pension fund and a longtime opponent of common market practices like short selling.

With Mizuno’s appointment the Tesla board now has 10 members, including Oracle founder, chairman and CTO Larry Ellison and Walgreens executive Kathleen Wilson-Thompson. Mizuno will also sit on the board’s audit committee.

Hiro has a long career in finance and investment that included a stint as executive managing director and chief investment officer of Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF), the largest in the world with about $1.5 trillion in assets under management. Hiro left his position in late March.

During his time at GPIF, Hiro promoted environmental, social and governance practices. He was also known for challenging short selling — a practice that has plagued Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk . During his tenure, the GPIF suspended stock lending, which caught many by surprise. Hiro’s opposition to short selling is at odds with some market purists who believe the investment strategy — which speculates on the decline in a stock — actually provides greater price transparency. Hiro has said in previous interviews with media outlets like the Financial Times that it conflicts with his long-term perspective.

Hiro is on a number of government advisory boards, including the board of the PRI, the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council and the Japanese government’s strategic fund integrated advisory board.

He also challenged many established market practices, including short-selling, to promote long-term value creation by corporations.

As a director, Mizuno will get an initial award of an option to purchase 2,778 shares of Tesla’s common stock, vesting and exercisable on June 18, 2020. For serving on the audit committee, he will get an initial award of an option to purchase 4,000 shares of Tesla’s common stock, vesting in 12 equal monthly tranches assuming continued service on each vesting date, according to a regulator filing Thursday.

Tesla’s board had sat unchanged for years until late 2018 when Ellison and Wilson-Thompson joined the board as independent directors as part of a settlement with U.S. securities regulators over CEO Elon Musk’s infamous tweets about taking the company private. Under the settlement, Tesla agreed to add two independent directors and Musk would step down as chairman for three years. Robyn Denholm, the former chief operations officer of Telstra Corporation Limited, a telecommunications company, was named chairman in November 2018.

In April 2019, the company said it would cut its board down by more than one-third, to seven directors, by 2020, a move that included the loss of some of Musk’s  early advisers and allies.

Longtime board members Brad Buss and Linda Johnson Rice, who joined two years ago as an independent director, did not seek re-election in 2019 and their terms expired at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in June. The board said in the proxy filing at the time that it didn’t plan to fill their seats.

Antonio Gracias,  whose term ends in 2020, and venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson will leave the board in 2020, according to a regulatory filing last year.

Digging into Europe’s Q1 venture results

By Alex Wilhelm

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

Today we’re taking a look at a bit of data on the European venture capital scene in Q1. As with our looks at other locales like Silicon Valley and other bits of the United States, we’re taking stock of what happened in the first quarter. Q1 2020 includes pre-COVID-19 results, though as some European countries began to lock-down before the United States, there may be more pandemic-impact in the following results than we’ve seen domestically thus far.

Today’s grip of data is via the folks over at PitchBook, who compiled a venture-focused dig through the continent’s first three months of the year. Let’s parse the top numbers, make a comparison or two and then look to what’s next.

Q1: An ok quarter

Despite COVID-19, China’s broad shuttering and an aged bull market deep, Europe’s venture capital activity in Q1 2020 was mostly fine. It wasn’t great, and there were some less-than-winsome results that could be chalked up to the pandemic, but the first quarter provided an alright start to the year.

In Nigeria PalmPay waives fees and creates ₦100M COVID-19 payout fund

By Jake Bright

Africa focused payment startup PalmPay will waive transfer fees in Nigeria and offer direct payouts to customers who have contracted COVID-19 in the West African country.

The venture — that launched in 2019 backed by China’s Transsion —  has created the PalmPay Support Fund. The initiative will start with 100 million Naira (≈ $300K) and offer individual payments of 100,000 Naira (≈ $250) to PalmPay customers who have contracted the coronavirus.

The startup will expand the fund’s value by providing a matching gift per customer transaction for at least on month. PalmPay will also extend the fund to offer grants to organizations working on coronavirus mitigation and assistance efforts in Nigeria.

On the structure of the initiative — and adding a matching function — PalmPay aims to create interactivity with its clients on coronavirus relief efforts. “We want to provide relief…and get our customers feeling that they’re adding something to it as well,” PalmPay CEO Greg Reeve told TechCrunch on a call.

The company has created a page on its app for applications and funds dispersal. PalmPay is working with Nigeria’s Center for Disease Control on a verification process to confirm those who apply have tested positive for COVID-19, according to Reeve.

Image Credits: PalmPay

PalmPay’s initiative comes as COVID-19 has hit Africa’s largest economies and the continent’s fintech platforms have been mobilized as tools to stem the spread.

Early in March, Africa’s coronavirus numbers by country were in the single digits, but by mid-month those numbers had spiked, leading the World Health Organization’s Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti to sound an alarm.

By WHO stats Tuesday there were 14,922 COVID-19 cases in Africa and 702 confirmed virus related deaths, up from 345 cases and 7 deaths on March 18.

Countries such as South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria — which happen to be Africa’s top tech hubs — have imposed social distancing and lockdown practices.

Governments and startups on the continent have also turned to measures to shift a greater volume of financial transactions to digital payments and away from cash — which the World Health Organization flagged as a conduit for the coronavirus.

It’s an option facilitated by the boom in fintech that’s occurred in Africa over the last decade. By several estimates, the continent is home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population and has a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

But because of that opportunity, fintech startups now receive the majority of VC funding annually in Africa, according to recent data.

Increasingly, Nigeria has become the focal point for digital finance development on the continent, boasting Africa’s largest economy and population (200 million).

The country has multiple new digital-payments entrants — see Chippercash — and several firmly rooted later-stage fintech players, such as Paga and recently confirmed unicorn Interswitch.

PalmPay launched in Nigeria last year on the back of one of Africa’s largest 2019 seed-rounds — $40 million led by Transsion. In addition to a lot of capital, the investment came with an additional competitive advantage for the startup. Through its Tecno brand, Transsion is the largest seller of smartphones in Africa and PalmPay now comes preinstalled on all Tecno devices.

Image Credits: Jake Bright

While PalmPay reamins in the race to capture fintech market share in Nigeria, for now the startup looks to weather the COVID-19 crisis in the country. Like most of Nigeria — and much of the world — PalmPay’s staff are on lockdown and working from home, according to the company’s CEO.

Commercial times in the country could be tough into the next year. Nigeria has already seen a reduction in economic activity as a result of COVID-19, and as a major oil producer, the country will face an additional economic blow due to the drop in demand the pandemic has dealt to petroleum markets.

A trend that could come out of the crisis that benefits fintech players, according to PalmPay CEO Greg Reeve, is greater digital finance adoption in Nigeria. In the past, the country has shown a cash-is-king reluctance by parts of the population to use mobile payments and lagged Africa’s digital finance leaders Kenya and South Africa.

The current health crisis could shift consumer habits in Nigeria, according to Reeve. “We’ve seen an increased use in our service, whilst people aren’t able to move around,” he said.

“There is a natural uptake right now for services like mobile money and I think when people start to use it, they’ll continue to use it when the COVID-19 ceases.”

Indian food delivery startup Swiggy is cutting about 1,000 jobs

By Manish Singh

Swiggy is cutting about 1,000 jobs, most from its cloud kitchen division, as India’s top food delivery startup scales back some of its businesses in response to the coronavirus pandemic that has drastically affected millions of firms.

In a statement, the Bangalore-based startup said it was “evaluating various means to stay nimble and focus on growth and profitability across our kitchens.”

“This will, unfortunately, have an impact on a certain number of kitchen staff who will be fully supported during this transition,” said the startup, which, according to an analysis on LinkedIn, employs about 12,000 people.

Swiggy did not reveal the number of people it was letting go, but a source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that about 1,000 jobs were being cut. Indian news outlet Entrackr first reported the layoffs.

As the firm cuts its headcount, it is also looking to reduce its monthly burn rate to about $5 million, down from about $20 million it spends in winning customers currently, the source said, requesting anonymity as some of these matters remain private.

Swiggy — which has raised $1.42 billion to date, including $156 million as part of an ongoing Series I round this year — competes with Ant Financial-backed Zomato, which is also in talks to raise about $500 million by mid-May, Deepinder Goyal, the co-founder and chief executive of the Gurgaon-based startup, told TechCrunch last week.

Both the startups spend nearly the same amount of money in discounts and other incentives to sustain their customers and win new patrons. India’s food delivery market, valued at $4 billion (by research firm RedSeer), has become a duopoly as FoodPanda, owned by Ola, made a major strategic shift in recent years and Uber sold its Indian Uber Eats business to Zomato.

Swiggy and Zomato have, however, struggled to cut costs in fear that they might lose customers. And those fears are well founded.

Anand Lunia, a VC at India Quotient, said that the food delivery firms have little choice but to keep subsidizing the cost of food items on their platform, as otherwise most of their customers can’t afford them.

The lockdown that New Delhi ordered last month has created new challenges for both Swiggy and Zomato. Both the startups are now seeing fewer than a million orders placed on their platforms, down from nearly 3 million they were handling before the outbreak.

In the last year, both the startups have attempted to expand into new categories in search of additional revenue sources. Swiggy has expanded and doubled down on cloud kitchens, which allows its restaurant partners to launch in more locations with not as much investment.

Late last year, Swiggy executives said they had established 1,000 cloud kitchens for its restaurant partners in the country — more than any of its local rivals. The startup said it had invested in more than a million square feet of real estate space across 14 cities in the country in the last two years.

In the wake of pandemic, both Swiggy and Zomato have also started delivering grocery items to customers.

Betterment adds checking and savings products

By Jonathan Shieber

Betterment, the New York-based automated advisory service for wealth management, is adding FDIC-insured checking and savings account services through partnerships with several banks.

It’s the culmination of something we’ve been working on for a long time.,” says Betterment chief executive and founder, Jon Stein. 

While the money management services company has long been one of the dominant forces in fintech — alongside its competitor Wealthfront — one key piece of its offering had been missing. That was its ability to operate as a bank and have an even better window into the finances of its customers.

With the addition of these services, Betterment in some ways completes its financial services puzzle. Historically, says Stein, there were two segments to financial services. Banking for labor and wealth management and financial services for the owners of production. Over time, in the 70s and 80s, deregulation opened aspects of financial services to working class investors, but the industry didn’t evolve to serve those customers.

“I believe that the average American is very poorly served by both institutions,” says Stein. “Banks make money off of net interest margins, putting you into debt, or annoyance fees. On the other hand, most of the trading firms also make money when you do bad things. I believe that people need a cash advisor. One who aligns with them in a fiduciary sense and helps them make the most of their savings.”

Like other investment management and financial services startups in the fintech space that focus on savings and investing, Betterment has seen tremendous growth through the financial downturn caused by the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We saw net new customers even in the worst weeks of March,” says Betterment founder and chief executive Jon Stein . “And more people were depositing. Twenty five percent more people were depositing than withdrawing. Just among millennials that number was thirty six percent.” 

To date, Betterment has amassed some $22 billion in assets under management and Stein says the financial services company has seen 40% growth year over year in the company’s topline.

Now, with the new FDIC -insured checking account, that number is likely to grow.

“We’re partnered with NBKC to provide checking accounts,” says Stein. “For the savings product it’s a broker-deposit product we’re working with over a dozen banks on to bring the best rates we can find to our customers.”

Right now that means no ATM fees at any location in the world. The accounts also come with no overdraft or other checking fees; no minimum balance requirements; no foreign transaction fees; and mobile checking deposits. The accounts are insured up to $250,000 for the checking accounts and $1 million for an individual savings account. Joint accounts are insured up to $2 million.

Debit cards can be unlocked from an account holders phone and money can be transferred between Betterment accounts.

The savings and checking accounts may be handled by different banking providers, but the company said that it will sweep money between them for customers. “We’ll try to push as much as we can into the savings vehicle,” says Stein.

“The bigger picture thing is that we’re a cash advisor. We’re going to be telling you how to invest that,” says Stein.  “We’ll suggest that, ‘Hey you might want to set up your retirement goals… or it’s time to start saving for college… It feels like everyone is adding a debit card these days… for us it’s always been part of the vision to be the central part of our financial relationship.”

Saving, not spending, is the new hotness in fintech

By Alex Wilhelm

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

Yesterday news broke that Robinhood is on the hunt for new capital at a roughly flat valuation, per friend of the blog Katie Roof. If you are a bit confused by the news, I understand. Robinhood went through a gauntlet of bad press and user complaints after it suffered from some embarrassing downtime back in March, and isn’t the capital market for private companies in rough shape?

But the round is more reasonable than you’d think, namely because Robinhood’s revenue has reached real scale, and, like other savings and investing-focused financial applications, it’s enjoying a boom in demand. Showing that there’s buzz in helping people save, let’s talk about Robinhood briefly and dig into some other metrics from its loose cohort of companies (including M1 Finance, more about them in a moment) .

Growth

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