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Kafene raises $14M to offer buy now, pay later to the subprime consumer

By Mary Ann Azevedo

The buy now, pay later frenzy isn’t going anywhere as more consumers seek alternatives to credit cards to fund purchases.

And those purchases aren’t exclusive to luxuries such as Pelotons (ahem, Affirm) or jewelry someone might be treating themselves to online. A new fintech company is out to help consumers finance big-ticket items that are considered more “must have” than “nice to have.” And it’s just raised $14 million in Series A funding to help it advance on that goal.

Neal Desai (former CFO of Octane Lending) and James Schuler (who participated in Y Combinator’s accelerator program as a high schooler) founded New York City-based Kafene in July 2019. The pair’s goal is to promote financial inclusion by meeting the needs of what it describes as the “consumers that are left behind by traditional lenders.”

More specifically, Kafene is focused on helping consumers with credit scores below 650 purchase retail items such as furniture, appliances and electronics with its buy now, pay later (BNPL) model. Consider it an “Affirm for the subprime,” says Desai.

Global Founders Capital and Third Prime Ventures co-led the round, which also included participation from Valar, Company.co, Hermann Capital, Gaingels, Republic Labs, Uncorrelated Ventures and FJ labs.

“Historically, if you could access credit, you could go to the bank or use a credit card,” Third Prime’s Wes Barton told TechCrunch. “But if you had some unexpected expense, and had to miss a payment with the bank, there would be repercussions and you could fall into a debt trap.”

Kafene’s “flexible ownership” model is designed to not let that happen to a consumer. If for some reason, someone has to forfeit on a payment, Kafene comes to pick up the item and the customer is no longer under obligation to pay for it moving forward.

The way it works is that Kafene buys the product from a merchant on a consumers’ behalf and rents it back to them over 12 months. If they make all payments, they own the item. If they make them earlier, they get a “significant” discount, and if they can’t, Kafene reclaims the item and takes the loan loss.

Image Credits: Kafene

It’s a modern take on Rent-A-Center, which charges more money for inferior products, Desai believes.

“This is also a superior product to credit cards, and the size of that market is massive,” Barton said. “We want to take a huge chunk of credit card business in time, and give consumers the flexibility to quit at any point in time, and fly free, if you will.”

Such flexibility, Kafene claims, helps promote financial inclusion by giving a wider range of consumers options to alternative forms of credit at the point of sale.

It also helps people boost their credit scores, according to Desai, because if they buy out of the loan earlier than the 12-month term, their credit score goes up because Kafene reports them as a positive payer.

“In any situation where they don’t steal the item, their credit score improves,” he said. “Even if they end up returning it because they can’t afford it. In the long run, they can have a better credit score to qualify for a traditional loan product.”

Kafene rolled out a beta of its financing product in December of 2019 and then had to pause in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company essentially “hibernated” from March to June 2020 and re-launched out of beta last July.

By October, Kafene stopped all enrollment with merchants because it had more demand that it could handle — largely fueled by more people being financially strained due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2021, the company was handling about $2 million a month in merchandise volume.

With its new capital, Kafene plans to significantly scale its existing lease-to-own financing business nationally, as well as to launch a direct-to-consumer virtual lease card.

Version One launches $70M Fund IV and $30M Opportunities Fund II

By Darrell Etherington

Early stage investor Version One, which consists of partners Boris Wertz and Angela Tran, has raised its fourth fund, as well as a second opportunity fund specifically dedicated to making follow-on investments. Fund IV pools $70 million from LPs to invest, and Opportunities Fund II is $30 million, both up from the $45 million Fund III and roughly $20 million original Opportunity Fund.

Version One is unveiling this new pool of capital after a very successful year for the firm, which is based in Vancouver and San Francisco. 2021 saw its first true blockbuster exit, with Coinbase’s IPO. The investor also saw big valuation boosts on paper for a number of its portfolio companies, including Ada (which raises at a $1.2 billion valuation in May); Dapper Labs (valued at $7.5 billion after riding the NFT wave); and Jobber (no valuation disclosed but raised a $60 million round in January).

I spoke to both Wertz and Tran about their run of good fortune, how they think the fund has achieved the wins it recorded thus far, and what Version One has planned for this Fund IV and its investment strategy going forward.

“We have this pretty broad focus of mission-driven founders, and not necessarily just investing in SaaS, or just investing in marketplaces, or crypto,” Wertz said regarding their focus. “We obviously love staying early — pre-seed and seed — we’re really the investors that love investing in people, not necessarily in existing traction and numbers. We love being contrarian, both in terms of the verticals we go in to, and and the entrepreneurs we back; we’re happy to be backing first-time entrepreneurs that nobody else has ever backed.”

In speaking to different startups that Version One has backed over the years, I’ve always been struck by how connected the founders seem to the firm and both Wertz and Tran — even much later in the startups’ maturation. Tran said that one of their advantages is following the journey of their entrepreneurs, across both good times and bad.

“We get to learn,” she said. “It’s so cool to watch these companies scale […] we get to see how these companies grow, because we stick with them. Even the smallest things we’re just constantly thinking about— we’re constantly thinking about Laura [Behrens Wu] at Shippo, we’re constantly thinking about Mike [Murchison] and David [Hariri] at Ada, even though it’s getting harder to really help them move the needle on their business.”

Wertz also discussed the knack Version One seems to have for getting into a hot investment area early, anticipating hype cycles when many other firms are still reticent.

“We we went into crypto early in 2016, when most people didn’t really believe in crypto,” he said. “We started investing pretty aggressively in in climate last year, when nobody was really invested in climate tech. Having a conviction in in a few areas, as well as the type of entrepreneurs that nobody else really has conviction is what really makes these returns possible.”

Since climate tech is a relatively new focus for Version One, I asked Wertz about why they’re betting on it now, and why this is not just another green bubble like the one we saw around the end of the first decade of the 2000s.

“First of all, we deeply care about it,” he said. Secondly, we think there is obviously a new urgency needed for technology to jump into to what is probably one of the biggest problems of humankind. Thirdly, is that the clean tech boom has put a lot of infrastructure into the ground. It really drove down the cost of the infrastructure, and the hardware, of electric cars, of batteries in general, of solar and renewable energies in general. And so now it feels like there’s more opportunity to actually build a more sophisticated application layer on top of it.”

Tran added that Version One also made its existing climate bet at what she sees as a crucial inflection point — effectively at the height of the pandemic, when most were focused on healthcare crises instead of other imminent existential threats.

I also asked her about the new Opportunity Fund, and how that fits in with the early stage focus and their overall functional approach.

“It doesn’t require much change in the way we operate, because we’re not doing any net new investments,” Tran said. “So we recognize we’re not growth investors, or Series A/Series B investors that need to have a different lens in the way that they evaluate companies. For us, we just say we want to double down on these companies. We have such close relationships with them, we know what the opportunities are. It’s almost like we have information arbitrage.”

That works well for all involved, including LPs, because Tran said that it’s appealing to them to be able to invest more in companies doing well without having to build a new direct relationship with target companies, or doing something like creating an SPV designated for the purpose, which is costly and time-consuming.

Looking forward to what’s going to change with this fund and their investment approach, Wertz points to a broadened international focus made possible by the increasingly distributed nature of the tech industry following the pandemic.

“I think that the thing that probably will change the most is just much more international investing in this one, and I think it’s just direct result of the pandemic and Zoom investing, that suddenly the pipeline has opened up,” he said.

“We’ve certainly learned a lot about ourselves over the past year and a half,” Tran added. “I mean, we’ve always been distributed, […] and being remote was one of our advantages. So we certainly benefited and we didn’t have to adjust our working style too much, right. But now everyone’s working like this, […] so it’s going to be fun to see what advantage we come up with next.”

SoftBank pours up to $150M into GBM, a Mexico City-based investment platform

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Grupo Bursátil Mexicano (GBM) is a 35-year-old investment platform in the Mexican stock market. In its first three decades of life, GBM was focused on providing investment services to high net worth individuals and local and global institutions.

Over the past decade, the Mexico City-based brokerage has ramped up its digital efforts, and, in the past five years, has evolved its business model to offer services to all Mexicans with the same products and services it offers large estates.

Today, GBM is announcing it has received an investment of “up to” $150 million from SoftBank via the Japanese conglomerate’s Latin America Fund at a valuation of “over $1 billion.” The investment is being made through one of GBM’s subsidiaries and is not contingent on anything, according to the company.

Co-CEO Pedro de Garay Montero told TechCrunch that GBM has built an app, GBM+, that organizes and invests clients’ money through three different tools: Wealth Management, Trading and Smart Cash.

Last year was a “historic” one for the company, he said, and GBM went from having 38,000 investment accounts in January 2020 to more than 650,000 by year’s end. In the first quarter of 2021, that number had grown to over 1 million — representing more than 30x growth from the beginning of 2020.

For some context, according to the National Banking and Securities Commission (CNBV), there were only 298,000 brokerage accounts in Mexico at the end of 2019, and that number climbed to 940,000 by the end of 2020 — with GBM holding a large share of them.

Most of GBM’s clients are retail clients, but the company also caters to “most of the largest investment managers worldwide,” as well as global companies such as Netflix, Google and BlackRock. Specifically, it services 40% of the largest public corporations in Mexico and a large base of ultra high net worth individuals.

The company is planning to use its new capital in part to invest “heavily” in customer acquisition.

Montero said that half of its team of 450 are tech professionals, and that the company plans to also continue hiring as it focuses on growth in its B2C and B2B offerings and expanding into new verticals.

“We are improving our already robust financial education offering,” he added, “so that Mexicans can take control of their finances. GBM’s mission is to transform Mexico into a country of investors.”

Because Mexico is such a huge market — with a population of over 120 million and a GDP of more than $1 trillion — GBM is laser-focused on growing its presence in the country.

“The financial services industry is dominated by big banks and is inefficient, expensive and provides a poor client experience. This has resulted in less than 1% of individuals having an investment account,” Montero told TechCrunch. “We will be targeting clients through our own platform and internal advisors, as well as growing our base of external advisors to reach as many people as possible with the best investment products and user experience.”

When it comes to institutional clients, he believes there is “enormous potential” in serving both the large corporations and the SMEs “who have received limited services from banks.”

Juan Franck, investment lead for SoftBank Latin America Fund in Mexico, believes the retail investment space in Mexico is at an inflection point.

“The investing culture in Mexico has historically been low compared to the rest of the world, even when specifically compared to other countries in Latin America, like Brazil,” he added. “However, the landscape is quickly changing as, through technology, Mexicans are being provided more education around investing and more investment alternatives.”

In the midst of this shift, SoftBank was impressed by GBM’s “clear vision and playbook,” Franck said.

So, despite being a decades-old company, SoftBank sees big potential in the strength of the digital platform that GBM has built out.

“GBM is the leading broker in Mexico in terms of trading activity and broker accounts,” he said. “The company combines decades of industry know-how with an entrepreneurial drive to revolutionize the wealth management space in the country.”

How to Game on a PC When You Can’t Find a Graphics Card

By Whitson Gordon
Don’t want to get scammed by a scalper or pay more than double for a new GPU? We have some tips to help you keep gaming without emptying your wallet.

SVB-led $100M investment makes Chipper Cash Africa’s ‘most valuable startup’

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Fintech in Africa is a goldmine. Investors are betting big on startups offering a plethora of services from payments and lending to neobanks, remittances and cross-border transfers, and rightfully soEach of these services solves unique sets of challenges. For cross-border payments, it’s the outrageous rates and regulatory hassles involved with completing transactions from one African country to another.

Chipper Cash, a three-year-old startup that facilitates cross-border payment across Africa, has closed a $100 million Series C round to introduce more products and grow its team.

It hasn’t been too long ago since Chipper Cash was last in the news. In November 2020, the African cross-border fintech startup raised $30 million Series B led by Ribbit Capital and Jeff Bezos fund Bezos Expeditions. This was after closing a $13.8 million Series A round from Deciens Capital and other investors in June 2020. Hence, Chipper Cash has gone through three rounds totalling $143.8 million in a year. However, when the $8.4 million raised in two seed rounds back in 2019 is included, this number increases to $152.2 million.

SVB Capital, the investment arm of U.S. high-tech commercial bank Silicon Valley Bank led this Series C round. Others who participated in this round include existing investors — Deciens Capital, Ribbit Capital, Bezos Expeditions, One Way Ventures, 500 Startups, Tribe Capital, and Brue2 Ventures. 

Chipper Cash was launched in 2018 by Ham Serunjogi and Maijid Moujaled. The pair met in Iowa after coming to the U.S. for studies. Following their stints at big names like Facebook, Flickr and Yahoo!, the founders decided to work on their own startup.

Last year, the company which offers mobile-based, no fee, P2P payment services, was present in seven countries: Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya. Now, it has expanded to a new territory outside Africa. “We’ve expanded to the U.K., it’s the first market we’ve expanded to outside Africa,” CEO Serunjogi said to TechCrunch.

In addition and as a sign of growth, the company which boasts more than 200 employees plans to increase its workforce by hiring 100 staff throughout the year. The number of users on Chipper Cash has increased to 4 million, up 33% from last year. And while the company averaged 80,000 transactions daily in November 2020 and processed $100 million in payments value in June 2020, it is unclear what those figures are now as Serunjogi declined to comment on them, including its revenues.

When we reported its Series B last year, Chipper Cash wanted to offer more business payment solutions, cryptocurrency trading options, and investment services. So what has been the progress since then? “We’ve launched cards products in Nigeria and we’ve also launched our crypto product. We’re also launching our US stocks product in Uganda, Nigeria and a few other countries soon,” Serunjogi answered.

Crypto is widely adopted in Africa. African users are responsible for a sizeable chunk of transactions that take place on some global crypto-trading platforms. For instance, African users accounted for $7 billion of the $8.3 billion in Luno’s total trading volume. Binance P2P users in Africa also grew 2,000% within the past five months while their volumes increased by over 380%.

Individuals and small businesses across Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya account for most of the crypto activity on the continent. Chipper Cash is active in these countries and tapping into this opportunity is basically a no brainer. “Our approach to growing products and adding products is based on what our users find valuable. As you can imagine, crypto is one technology that has been widely adopted in Africa and many emerging markets. So we want to give them the power to access crypto and to be able to buy, hold, and sell crypto whenever,” the CEO added.

However, its crypto service isn’t available in Nigeria, the largest crypto market in Africa. The reason behind this is the Central Bank of Nigeria’s (CBN) regulation on crypto activities in the country prohibiting users from converting fiat into crypto from their bank accounts. To survive, most crypto players have adopted P2P methods but Chipper Cash isn’t offering that yet and according to Serunjogi, the company is “looking forward to any development in Nigeria that allows it to be offered freely again.”

The same goes for the investment service Chipper Cash plans to roll out in Nigeria and Uganda soon. Presently, Nigeria’s capital market regulator SEC is keeping tabs on local investment platforms and bringing their activities under its purview. Chipper Cash will not be exempt when the product is live in Nigeria and has begun engaging regulators to be ahead of the curve.

“As fintech explodes and as innovation continues to move forward, consumers have to be protected. We invest millions of dollars every year in our compliance programs, so I think working closely with the regulators directly so that these products are offered in a compliant manner is important,” Serunjogi noted. 

Six billion-dollar companies in Africa; the fifth fintech unicorn?

During our call, Serunjogi made some remarks about Nigeria’s central bank which resembles comments made by Flutterwave CEO Olugbenga Agboola back in March.

While acknowledging the central banks in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda for creating environments where innovation can thrive, he said: “Nigeria has probably the most exciting and vibrant tech ecosystem in Africa. And that’s credit directly to CBN for creating and fostering an environment that allowed multiple startups like ourselves and others like Flutterwave to blossom.”  

Most fintechs would argue that the CBN stifles innovation but comments from both CEOs seems to suggest otherwise. From all indication, Chipper Cash and Flutterwave strive to be on the right side of the country’s apex bank policies and regulations. It is why they are one of the fastest-growing fintechs in the region and also billion-dollar companies.

Obviously, we’re not getting into our valuation, but we’re probably the most valuable private startup in Africa today after this round. So that’s a reflection of the environment that regulators like CBN have created to allowed innovation and growth,” Serunjogi commented when asked about the company’s valuation.

Up until last week, the only private unicorn startup in Africa this year was Flutterwave. Then China-backed and African-focused fintech OPay came along as the company was reported to be in the process of raising $400 million at a $1.5 billion valuation. If Serunjogi’s comment is anything to go by, Chipper Cash might currently be valued between $1-2 billion thus joining the exclusive billion-dollar club.

But to be sure, I asked Serunjogi again if the company is indeed a unicorn. This time, he gave a more cryptic answer. “We’re not commenting on the size of our valuation publicly. One of the things that I’ve been quite keen on internally and externally is that the valuation of our company has not been a focus for us. It’s not a goal we’re aspiring to achieve. For us, the thing that drives us is that we have a product that is impactful to our users.”

Maijid Moujaled (CTO) and Ham Serunjogi (CEO)

Serunjogi added that this investment actualizes the importance of possessing a solid balance sheet and onboarding SVB Capital and getting existing investors to double down is a means to that end. According to him, a strong balance sheet will provide the infrastructure needed to support key long-term investments which will translate to more exciting products down the road.

“We look at our investors as key partners to the business. So having very strong partners around the table makes us a stronger company. These are partners who can put capital into our business, and we’re also able to learn from them in several other ways,” he said of the investors backing the three-year-old company.  

Just like Ribbit Capital and Bezos Expeditions in last year’s Series B, this is SVB Capital’s first foray into the African market. In an email, the managing director of SVB Capital Tilli Bannett, confirmed the fund’s investment in Chipper Cash. According to her, the VC firm invested in Chipper Cash because it has created an easy and accessible way for people living in Africa to fulfil their financial needs through enhanced products and user experiences.

“As a result, Chipper has had a phenomenal trajectory of consumer adoption and volume through the product. We are excited at the role Chipper has forged for itself in fostering financial inclusion across Africa and the vast potential that still lies ahead,” she added.

Fintech remains the bright spot in African tech investment. In 2020, the sector accounted for more than 25% of the almost $1.5 billion raised by African startups. This figure will likely increase this year as four startups have raised $100 million rounds already: TymeBank in February, Flutterwave in March, and OPay and Chipper Cash this May. All except TymeBank are now valued at over $1 billion, and it becomes the first time Africa has witnessed two or more billion-dollar companies in a year. In addition to Jumia (e-commerce), Interswitch (fintech), and Fawry (fintech), the continent now has six billion-dollar tech companies.

Here’s another interesting piece of information. The timeframe at which startups are reaching this landmark seems to be shortening. While it took Interswitch and Fawry seventeen and thirteen years respectively, it took Flutterwave five years; Jumia, four years; then OPay and Chipper Cash three years.

We reached out to the VC firm for comment regarding Chipper Cash’s valuation.

Visa takes a swipe in fintech, builds new online marketplace

By Mary Ann Azevedo

The relationships between banks and fintechs are multi-faceted.

In some cases, they partner. In many cases, they compete. In other cases, one acquires or invests in the other.

Well, today, an announcement by global payments giant Visa is aimed at helping facilitate banks and fintechs’ ability to work together.

Specifically, Visa said today it has expanded its Visa Fintech Partner Connect, a program designed to help financial institutions quickly connect with a “vetted and curated” set of technology providers. 

I talked with Terry Angelos, senior vice president and global head of fintech at Visa, to understand just exactly what that means.

“Global fintech investment last year was $105 billion,” Angelos said. “There were about 2,861 deals in venture, PE and M&A. So literally over $100 billion is going into fintech, which is more than the combined tech budgets of every bank in the U.S. As a result, a lot of innovation that is occurring in fintech is funded by venture dollars. We’re trying to bring that innovation to our clients, whether they are banks, processors or other fintechs.”

The program initially launched in Europe in November of 2020, and now is available in the U.S., Asia Pacific, Latin American and CEMEA (Central Europe, Middle East and Africa). Visa has worked to identify fintechs that can help banks and financial institutions (that are clients of Visa’s) as well as other fintechs “create digital-first experiences, without the cost and complexity of building the back-end technology in-house.

Local teams will run programs in the respective regions, and vet and manage partners in the following categories: account opening, data aggregation, analytics and security, customer engagement and new cardholder services and operations and compliance.

So far, Visa has identified about 60 partners that offer a range of technologies — from back-office functions to new front-end services, according to Angelos. Those partners include Alloy, Jumio, Argyle, Fidel, FirstSource, TravelBank, Canopy, Hummingbird and Unit21, among others. Twenty-four are located in the U.S.

“So much of fintech focus and coverage is about disrupting existing banks. Everyone is trying to disrupt everyone, including fintechs like PayPal,” Angelos told TechCrunch. “Venture numbers are certainly very large. What we’re realizing is there is a significant opportunity to pair up a lot of venture-backed companies with our existing clients. It runs a little bit against us versus them approach you typically hear about.”

Visa clients can get in touch with program partners via the Visa Partner website and get benefits such as reduced implementation fees and pricing discounts. 

“The Fintech Connect program is about both helping to identify and curate interesting fintech companies and then create a favorable commercial partnership for our clients so they can engage with these Fintech Connect partners,” Angelos said.

So, what does Visa gain from all this?

“Our goal is that all of our clients are in a position to build better digital experiences for their consumers,” he told TechCrunch. “We would love it if every bank had the latest tools in order to onboard clients and build digital experiences.”

One of its partners, for example, is virtual card startup Extend. 

“There are fintechs that provide this today such as TripActions, Ramp and Divvy,” Angelos points out. “But what Visa is doing is looking at ‘How can we enable our banking clients to do something similar?’ So we’re bringing innovation into our ecosystem so that anyone can take advantage.”

It can also help companies such as TripActions, Ramp or Divvy with other complementary technologies for security posture, for example.

“The net beneficiary is to hopefully move more spending onto those rails,” Angelos said. “For example, if you look at B2B spend, there’s about $120 trillion of it annually. We believe about $20 trillion of that is card eligible. Today, Visa captures about $1 trillion of that. So, another $19 trillion is available for Visa to capture through our partners if our banks and fintechs can build these kinds of solutions to enable B2B payments.”

To be clear, Visa also invests in startups from time to time. But this initiative is distinct from those efforts, although a couple of its partners have been recipients of funding from Visa.

UK’s Paysend raises $125M at a $700M+ valuation to expand its all-in-one payments platform

By Ingrid Lunden

With more people than ever before going online to pay for things and pay each other, startups that are building the infrastructure that enables these actions continue to get a lot of attention.

In the latest development, Paysend, a fintech that has built a mobile-based payments platform — which currently offers international money transfers, global accounts, and business banking and e-commerce for SMBs — has picked up some money of its own. The London-based startup has closed a round of $125 million, a sizable Series B that the company’s CEO and founder Ronnie Millar said it will be using both to continue expanding its business geographically, to hire more people, and to continue building more fintech products.

The funding is being led by One Peak, with Infravia Growth Capital, Hermes GPE, previous backer Plug and Play and others participating.

Millar said Paysend is not disclosing valuation today but described it as a “substantial kick-up” and “a great step forward in our position ahead towards unicorn status.”

From what I understand though, the company was valued at $160 million in its previous round, and its core metrics have gone up 4.5x. Doing some basic math, that gives the company a valuation of around $720 million, a figure that a source close to the company did not dispute when I brought it up.

Something that likely caught investors’ attention is that Paysend has grown to the size it is today — it currently has 3.7 million consumer customers using its transfer and global account services, and 17,000 small business customers, and is now available in 110 receiving countries — in less than four years and $50 million in funding.

There are a couple of notable things about Paysend and its position in the market today, the first being the competitive landscape.

On paper, Paysend appears to offer many of the same features as a number of other fintechs: money transfer, global payments, and banking and e-commerce services for smaller businesses are all well-trodden areas with companies like Wise (formerly “TransferWise”), PayPal, Revolut, and so many others also providing either all or a range of these services.

To me, the fact that any one company relatively off the tech radar can grow to the size that it has speaks about the opportunity in the market for more than just one or two, or maybe five, dominant players.

Considering just remittances alone, the WorldBank in April said that flows just to low- and middle-income countries stood at $540 million last year, and that was with a dip in volumes due to Covid-19. The cut that companies like Paysend make in providing services to send money is, of course, significantly smaller than that — business models include commission charges, flat fees, or making money off exchange rates; Paysend charges £1 per transfer in the UK. More than that, the overall volumes, and the opportunity to build more services for that audience, are why we’re likely to see a lot of companies with ambitions to serve that market.

Services for small businesses, and tapping into the opportunity to provide more e-commerce tools at a time when more business and sales are being conducted online, is similarly crowded but also massive.

Indeed, Paysend points out that there is still a lot of growing and evolution left to do. Citing McKinsey research, it notes that some 70% of international payments are currently still cash-to-cash, with fees averaging up to 5.2% per transaction, and timing taking up to an hour each for sender and recipient to complete transfers. (Paysend claims it can cut fees by up to 60%.)

This brings us to the second point about Paysend: how it’s built its services. The fintech world today leans heavily on APIs: companies that are knitting together a lot of complexity and packaging it into APIs that are used by others who bypass needing to build those tools themselves, instead integrating them and adding better user experience and responsive personalization around them. notes, is a little different from these, with a vertically integrated approach, having itself built everything that it uses from the ground up.

Millar — a Scottish repeat entrepreneur (his previous company Paywizard, which has rebranded to Singula, is a specialist in pay-TV subscriber management) — notes that Paysend has built both its processing and acquiring facilities. “Because we have built everything in-house it lets us see what the consumer needs and uses, and to deliver that at a lower cost basis,” he said. “It’s much more cost efficient and we pass that savings on to the consumer. We designed our technology to be in complete control of it. It’s the most profitable approach, too, from a business point of view.”

That being said, he confirmed that Paysend itself is not yet profitable, but investors believe it’s making the right moves to get there. And, to be clear, Paysend actually does partner with other companies, including those providing APIs, to improve its services. In April, Plaid and Paysend announced they were working together to power open banking transfers, reducing the time to initiate and receive money.

“We are excited by Paysend’s enormous growth potential in a massive market, benefiting from a rapid acceleration in the adoption of digital payments,” said Humbert de Liedekerke, managing partner at One Peak Partners, in a statement. “In particular, we are seeing strong opportunities as Paysend moves beyond consumers to serve business customers and expands its international footprint to address a growing need for fast, easy and low-cost cross border digital payments. Paysend has built an exceptional payment platform by maintaining an unwavering focus on its customers and constantly innovating. We are excited to back the entire Paysend team in their next phase of explosive growth.”

A New Antitrust Case Cuts to the Core of Amazon’s Identity

By Gilad Edelman
The Washington, DC, attorney general claims that the company obsessed with satisfying customers is actually screwing them.

Financing for students startup StudentFinance raises $5.3M seed from Giant and Armilar

By Mike Butcher

Fintech startup StudentFinance – which allows educational institutions to offer success-based financing for students – has raised a $5.3m (€4.5m) seed round co-led by Giant Ventures and Armilar Venture Partners. It’s now raised $6.6m total, to date.

StudentFinance launched in Spain first, followed by Germany and Finland, with the UK planned this year. Existing investors Mustard Seed Maze and Seedcamp, along with Sabadell Venture Capital, also participated.

The startup, which launched at the beginning of 2020, provides the tech back end for institutions to offer flexible payment plans in the form of ISAs. It also provides data intelligence on the employment market to predict job demand.

It now has 35 education providers signed up managing over €5m worth of ISAs. It also works with upskilling platforms including Ironhack and Le Wagon. StudentFinance’s competitors include (in the USA) Blair, Leif, Vemo Education, Chancen (Germany-based) and EdAid (UK-based).

As for why StudentFinance stands out from those companies, Mariano Kostelec, co-founder & CEO of StudentFinance, said: “StudentFinance is the only platform in this space providing the full end-to-end, cross-border infrastructure to deliver ISAs for students whilst helping to plug the growing skills gap. Not only do we provide the infrastructure to support the ISA financing model, but we also provide data intelligence on the employment market and a career-as-a-service platform that focuses on placing students in the right job. We are creating an equilibrium between supply and demand.”

With an ISA, students only start paying back tuition once they are employed and earning above a minimum income threshold, with payments structured as a percentage of their earnings. This makes it a ‘success-based model’, says Student Finance, which shifts the risk away from the students. They are likely to be popular as workers need to resell with the onset of digitization and the pandemic’s effects.

The startup was founded in 2019 by Mariano Kostelec, Marta Palmeiro, Sergio Pereira and Miguel Santo Amaro. Kostelec and Santo Amaro previously built Uniplaces, which raised $30m as a student housing platform in Europe.

Cameron Mclain, Managing Partner of Giant Ventures, commented: “What StudentFinance has built empowers any educational institution to offer ISAs as an alternative to upfront tuition or student loans, broadening access to education and opportunity.”

Duarte Mineiro, Partner at Armilar Venture Partners, commented: “StudentFinance is a great opportunity to invest in because aside from its very compelling core purpose, this is a sound business where its economics are backed by a solid proprietary software technology.”

Sia Houchangnia, Partner at Seedcamp, commented: “The need for reskilling the workforce has never been as acute as it is today and we believe StudentFinance has an important role to play in tackling this societal challenge.”

Angel backers include investors, which includes: Victoria van Lennep (founder of Lendable); Martin Villig (founder of Bolt); Ed Vaizey (the UK’s longest-serving Culture & Digital Economy Minister); Firestartr (UK-based early-stage VC); Serge Chiaramonte (UK fintech investor); and more.

Amount raises $99M at a $1B+ valuation to help banks better compete with fintechs

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Amount, a company that provides technology to banks and financial institutions, has raised $99 million in a Series D funding round at a valuation of just over $1 billion.

WestCap, a growth equity firm founded by ex-Airbnb and Blackstone CFO Laurence Tosi, led the round. Hanaco Ventures, Goldman Sachs, Invus Opportunities and Barclays Principal Investments also participated.

Notably, the investment comes just over five months after Amount raised $86 million in a Series C round led by Goldman Sachs Growth at a valuation of $686 million. (The original raise was $81 million, but Barclays Principal Investments invested $5 million as part of a second close of the Series C round). And that round came just three months after the Chicago-based startup quietly raised $58 million in a Series B round in March. The latest funding brings Amount’s total capital raised to $243 million since it spun off from Avant — an online lender that has raised over $600 million in equity — in January of 2020.

So, what kind of technology does Amount provide? 

In simple terms, Amount’s mission is to help financial institutions “go digital in months — not years” and thus, better compete with fintech rivals. The company formed just before the pandemic hit. But as we have all seen, demand for the type of technology Amount has developed has only increased exponentially this year and last.

CEO Adam Hughes says Amount was spun out of Avant to provide enterprise software built specifically for the banking industry. It partners with banks and financial institutions to “rapidly digitize their financial infrastructure and compete in the retail lending and buy now, pay later sectors,” Hughes told TechCrunch.

Specifically, the 400-person company has built what it describes as “battle-tested” retail banking and point-of-sale technology that it claims accelerates digital transformation for financial institutions. The goal is to give those institutions a way to offer “a secure and seamless digital customer and merchant experience” that leverages Amount’s verification and analytics capabilities. 

Image Credits: Amount

HSBC, TD Bank, Regions, Banco Popular and Avant (of course) are among the 10 banks that use Amount’s technology in an effort to simplify their transition to digital financial services. Recently, Barclays US Consumer Bank became one of the first major banks to offer installment point-of-sale options, giving merchants the ability to “white label” POS payments under their own brand (using Amount’s technology).

The pandemic dramatically accelerated banks’ interest in further digitizing the retail lending experience and offering additional buy now, pay later financing options with the rise of e-commerce,” Hughes, former president and COO at Avant, told TechCrunch. “Banks are facing significant disruption risk from fintech competitors, so an Amount partnership can deliver a world-class digital experience with significant go-to-market advantages.”

Also, he points out, consumers’ digital expectations have changed as a result of the forced digital adoption during the pandemic, with bank branches and stores closing and more banking done and more goods and services being purchased online.

Amount delivers retail banking experiences via a variety of channels and a point-of-sale financing product suite, as well as features such as fraud prevention, verification, decisioning engines and account management.

Overall, Amount clients include financial institutions collectively managing nearly $2 trillion in U.S. assets and servicing more than 50 million U.S. customers, according to the company.

Hughes declined to provide any details regarding the company’s financials, saying only that Amount “performed well” as a standalone company in 2020 and that the company is expecting “significant” year-over-year revenue growth in 2021.

Amount plans to use its new capital to further accelerate R&D by investing in its technology and products. It also will be eyeing some acquisitions.

“We see a lot of interesting technology we could layer onto our platform to unlock new asset classes, and acquisition opportunities that would allow us to bring additional features to our platform,” Hughes told TechCrunch.

Avant itself made its first acquisition earlier this year when it picked up Zero Financial, news that TechCrunch covered here.

Kevin Marcus, partner at WestCap, said his firm invested in Amount based on the belief that banks and other financial institutions have “a point-in-time opportunity to democratize access to traditional financial products by accelerating modernization efforts.”

“Amount is the market leader in powering that change,” he said. “Through its best-in-class products, Amount enables financial institutions to enhance and elevate the banking experience for their end customers and maintain a key competitive advantage in the marketplace.”

AI-powered Jerry raises $28M to help you save money on car insurance

By Mary Ann Azevedo

When Art Agrawal was growing up in India, a car ride was a rare treat, and car ownership was a dream. When he moved to the U.S. and bought his first car, he was shocked by how much it cost and how difficult it was to maintain a car.

In 2012, he co-founded a company called YourMechanic (and won TechCrunch’s Disrupt that year) that provides on-demand automotive mobile maintenance and repair services. Over the years, the challenge of helping consumers more easily find car insurance was in the back of his mind. So in 2017, he teamed up with Lina Zhang and Musawir Shah to found Jerry, a mobile-first car ownership “super app.” The Palo Alto-based startup launched a car insurance comparison service using artificial intelligence and machine learning in January 2019. It has quietly since amassed nearly 1 million customers across the United States as a licensed insurance broker.

“Today as a consumer, you have to go to multiple different places to deal with different things,” Agrawal said. “Jerry is out to change that.”

And now today, Jerry is announcing that it has raised more than $57 million in funding, including a new $28 million Series B round led by Goodwater Capital. A group of angel investors also participated in the round include Greenlight president Johnson Cook and Greenlight CEO Timothy Sheehan; Tekion CEO Jay Vijayan; Jon McNeill, CEO of DVx Ventures and former president of Tesla and ex-COO of Lyft; Brandon Krieg, CEO of Stash and Ed Robinson, co-founder and president of Stash.

CEO Argawal says Jerry is different from other auto-related marketplaces out there in that it aims to help consumers with various aspects of car ownership (from repair to maintenance to insurance to warranties), rather than just one. Although for now it is mostly focused on insurance, it plans to use its new capital to move into other categories of car ownership.

The company also believes it is set apart from competitors in that it doesn’t refer a consumer to an insurance carrier’s site so that they still have to do the work of signing up with them separately, for example. Rather, Jerry uses automation to give consumers customized quotes from more than 45 insurance carriers “in 45 seconds.” The consumers can then sign on to the new carrier via Jerry, which would even cancel former policies on their behalf.

Image Credits: Jerry

“With Jerry, you can complete the whole transaction in our app,” Argawal said. “We don’t send you to another site. You don’t have to fill out a bunch of forms. You just give us some information, and we’ll instantly provide you with quotes.”

Its customers save on average about $800 a year on car insurance, the company claims. Jerry also offers a similar offering for home insurance but its focus is on car ownership.

The company must be doing something right. In 2020, Jerry saw its revenue surge by “10x.”

For some context, Jerry sold a few million dollars of insurance in 2019, according to Agrawal. This year, he said, the company is on track to do “three to four times” more than last year’s numbers.

“There’s no other automated way to compare and buy car insurance, because all the APIs are not easily accessible,” he said. “What we have done is we have automated the end to end journey for the consumer using our infrastructure, which will only scale over time.”

Jerry makes recurring revenue from earning a percentage of the premium when a consumer purchases a policy on its site from carriers such as Progressive.

“A lot of the marketplaces are lead-gen. A very small percent of their revenue is reoccurring,” Agrawal said. “For us, it’s 100% of our revenues.”

Goodwater Capital’s Chi-Hua Chien notes that the insurance space has historically been a very challenging category from a customer experience perspective.

“They took something that has historically been painful, intimidating and difficult for the customer and made it effortless,” he told TechCrunch. “That experience will more broadly over time apply to comparison shopping and maintenance, too.”

Chien said he was also drawn to the category itself.

“This is a competitive category because 100% of drivers need to have auto insurance 100% of the time,” he said. “That’s a large market that’s not going to go away. And since Jerry is powered by AI, it will only serve customers better over time, and just grow faster.”

Sequoia leads $5M pre-seed in Egypt’s 1-month-old digital bank Telda

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Egypt has a population of over 100 million people. The country has a high mobile and internet penetration necessary for a young and tech-savvy population with 61% below 30. But despite its youthful population, two out of every three individuals are currently unbanked in Egypt. It’s the same situation in MENA, where only 40% of the population have access to a bank account.

Digital banks have enormous potential in the region. Today, a newly launched one, Telda is announcing a $5 million pre-seed round to digitize how Egyptians save, send, and spend money.

Two weeks ago, we reported that Egyptian e-commerce fulfillment startup Flextock had raised the largest pre-seed in MENA. But that has changed today with Telda’s fundraise surpassing that record with a considerable margin in both MENA and Africa (Autochek’s $3.4 million) for now.

Telda was launched last month by CEO Ahmed Sabbah and CTO Youssef Sholqamy. Before Telda, Sabbah was the co-founder and CTO of Egypt’s ride-hailing company Swvl, and Sholqamy, a former senior engineer in Uber’s infrastructure team. Sabbah said he and his co-founder had been looking at the fintech space at their former workplaces. However, after his experience using N26 while visiting a friend in Berlin in 2015, his eyes opened to the possibilities of digital banking in Egypt.

“I was fond of the idea, and it was coming from a huge pain of payments we had in Egypt and the region. And for me, I was kind of like waiting for this to happen in Egypt, or if not, I thought I’ll tap into the opportunity someday,” he told TechCrunch. “Youcef and I have been like watching out the space for a while when the first digital bank started like six years ago, and watching how they grew in markets where we think banking is more mature than this region. So imagine an opportunity in a region like Egypt where banking is even way, way less mature.”

The North African country is one of the highest consumer spending markets in Africa. Its private consumption accounts for nearly 85% of its nominal GDP, and only 4% of its overall GDP is cashless. In essence, Egypt is heavily cash reliant, and card usage in the country is very much in its infancy. Disheartened by the non-customer-centric banking experiences, Telda was launched to provide an alternative.

Telda

Image Credits: Telda

Like any digital bank globally, Telda enables customers to create a free account to send and receive money. And also a card to use online, in stores, make withdrawals and pay bills. But while the service is currently live, Telda cards are yet to be distributed to existing and new customers.

Telda affirmed that it is the first company to receive a license from the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) under its new regulations to issue cards and onboard customers digitally. And by doing so, the one-month-old company has made major progress in a relatively short time, even though obtaining that license took lengthy dialogue with regulators.

“First movers will usually have to make all the effort with the regulators and with the bank and try to pave the way. So this was one of the hardest parts — convincing regulators to trust and regulate our banking business and to provide payment financial services to our consumers,” the CEO said. But because Telda’s proposition aligns with the CBE’s vision of digitizing payments in the country, it had little choice but to grant them the license.

A different issue the company has faced was finding a partner bank to provide these services. And to do that, Telda had to convince the bank that their services were complementary and wouldn’t entirely overlap.

“That means basically trying to be as much independent as possible from the infrastructure of the bank. This was quite crucial for us to be able to move right and as fast as a startup, not as slow and pretty much tied to the pace of the bank’s technology and operations,” he continued.

Due to the founders’ experience in Swvl and Uber, the importance of building a great team cannot be overemphasized. There’s barely any blueprint to look at in launching a digital bank in Egypt, so Telda is building how it knows best: hiring exceptional talent. According to the CEO, the team comprises Egyptians who returned to the North African country to build Telda after working for corporations like Facebook, Microsoft, Uber, Noon, and McKinsey.

MENA appears to be ripe for a digital banking experience. Per GSMA Intelligence, 280 million people in the region are mobile internet users, and growth is not slowing down. The frustration with traditional banks is particularly acute with the younger generation, who crave a simple, user-friendly, and transparent experience. Telda has been able to onboard an impressive list of investors, including Sequoia Capital, for this reason.

The giant US VC firm led the pre-seed round as Berlin-based Global Founders Capital (GFC) and emerging markets-focused fund Class 5 Global participated.

Telda is Sequoia’s first venture in Africa, MENA, and the wider GCC region. Eight years ago, the VC giant led an infamous seed investment in Latin American digital bank Nubank before it began to go full throttle. Now with more than 38 million customers, Nubank is the world’s largest digital bank with a valuation of $25 billion. Sequoia will be looking for a similar success story in Telda.

“There are many parallels between Brazil and Egypt. Both countries boast a large, young, talented, and tech-savvy population with a strong appetite to innovate,” said Sequoia Partner George Robson of the investment. “We are delighted to partner with Telda and earmark our first investment in the region.”

Telda intends to fast-track its card production and distribution with this new funding. The company said it currently has more than 30,000 signups already, with half of that already requesting cards. It also plans to capitalize on Sequoia’s name for hiring and expansion, the CEO continued.

I think hiring is key for us. We want to scale the team into a world-class team that’s willing to tap into the opportunity. What we aspire for is basically growing in Egypt, start to deliver cards for the early adopters, and we see ourselves reaching close to a million cards in our first year.”

Investments in Egypt have been growing in leaps and bounds over the past three years, accompanied by a growing, vibrant ecosystem. Egypt recorded the largest number of investment deals last year per Partech Africa. With 86 deals completed, the country contributed 24% to the total number of deals made on the continent

GFC partner Roel Janssen referring to the budding ecosystem in his statement, said: “We are highly impressed by Sabbah and Sholqamy and love their vision for building the region’s leading digital banking app, and we are proud to be part of their journey. It is GFC’s first investment in Egypt, and we see that Egypt has the potential to become an important hub in the global tech ecosystem.”

Class 5 global managing partner Youcef Oudjane said, Money has become a medium of self-expression — a form of identity — not solely a store of value. Telda has done a remarkable job of embedding their culture and values in the product, in both functionality and design.

Update: An earlier part of this article stated that Sequoia had made a few Sub-Saharan African investments in startups like Healthlane and OPay. However, those investments were executed by Sequoia China (a subsidiary of Sequoia) and a Sequoia scout, respectively.

Wealthsimple raises $610M at a $4B valuation

By Darrell Etherington

Canadian fintech giant Wealthsimple has raised a new round of $750 million CAD (~$610 million) at a post-money valuation of $5 billion CAD (~$4 billion). The round was led by Meritech and Greylock, and includes funding from Inovia, Sagard, Redpoint, TSV, as well as individual investors including Drake, Ryan Reynolds and Michael J. Fox (basically, all the most famous Canadians).

Wealthsimple’s big new raise more than doubles its valuation from its last round, a $114 million CAD (roughly $93 million) funding announced last October, which carried a post-money valuation of $1.5 billion CAD ($~1.22 billion USD). The Toronto-based company has been a leader in the realm of democratizing financial products for consumers, including stock trading, crypto asset sales, and peer-to-peer money transfers.

The company says that it experienced significant growth during the pandemic, which is likely one big reason why its valuation rose so much between its most recent raise and this one. Its commission-free retail investment platform has grown “rapidly” over the course of the past 14 months, the company says, and the crypto trading platform which it launched last August has also seen strong uptake given the recent surge in consumer interest in cryptocurrency assets.

Late last year, Wealthsimple soft-launched its P2P money transfer app, Wealthsimple Cash, and in March it made it available to all Canadians. The app is very similar in terms of features to Venmo or Square’s Cash app, but neither of those offerings have been available to Canadians thus far. Wealthsimple’s app, which is free to use and distinct from its stock trading and crypto platforms, has thus tapped significant pent-up demand in the market and seen rapid uptake rthus far.

With this funding, Wealthsimple plans to “expand its market position, build out its product suite, and grow its team.” The company also offers automated savings and investing products (the robo-advisor tools it was originally founded around), as well as tax filing tools, and it has demonstrated a clear appetite and ability to expand its offerings to encompass even more of its customers financials lives when committed with fresh resources to do so.

The company says it has over 1.5 million users, with over $10 billion in assets under management as of the last publicly available numbers.

How UK-based Lendable is powering fintechs across emerging markets

By Tage Kene-Okafor

What moves the needle for digital lenders is serving loans to their respective customers. But where does this money come from? The pool is usually equity or debt. While some lenders use the former, it can be seen as folly because, over time, the founders tend to lose ownership of their businesses after giving out too much equity to raise capital for loans. Hence the reason why most lending companies secure debt facilities. 

TechCrunch has recently reported on two prominent digital lenders (also digital banks in their own rights) gaining steam in Africa — Carbon and FairMoney. In 2019, Carbon secured $5 million in debt financing and the following year, FairMoney did the same but raised a higher sum, $13 million.

Enter Lendable, the UK-based firm responsible for supplying both lenders with debt finance.

The company with offices in Nairobi, New York, and Singapore advances loans to fintechs across eight markets in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Since launching in 2014, the company has disbursed over $125 million to these fintechs — SME lenders, payment platforms, asset lenders, marketplaces, and consumer lenders.

In a phone conversation with TechCrunch, Samuel Eyob, a principal at the firm, said the company is raising almost $180 million to continue its investment efforts across the three continents.

“We want to raise more than $180 million and we have investors that have committed cash to us,” he said. “Right now, we’re already investing out of that amount because we’ve already closed on a bunch of it. Ideally, the goal is to invest that amount over this year.”

Lendable was founded by Daniel Goldfarb and Dylan Friend. It was based on an insight that they had while Daniel was a partner at Greenstart, a venture capital firm focused on data, finance and energy. That insight was that the poorest people in the world pay the most for goods and services, so if capital markets could provide a path to ownership, that could help individuals build assets. So the pair set out to solve this by providing capital to fintechs catering to the needs of these people.

Eyob, a first-generation American from Ethiopia, knows what a lack of access to fair finance does to people and countries. Given the millions of people and businesses not effectively served by banks and MFIs, Eyob joined the team to drive financial inclusion in these markets

“Over a billion people still lack access to financial services and multiple reports indicate that the financing gap for micro and small businesses is trillions of dollars and growing. We believe this is a massive opportunity. So, whilst we started in Africa, the lack of access to fair financing solutions is a problem across all emerging markets, which we want to address,” he said.

Samuel Eyob

Samuel Eyob (Principal, Lendable)

So in 2014, Lendable started as a SaaS platform to democratize access to African capital markets by providing risk and analytics software. “We hoped to do this by bringing the securitization market from the Global North into Africa,” Eyob added

The company built an analytics platform to analyze loans and used machine learning to predict loan portfolio cashflows. In addition to that, they created an automated investment platform helping ventures to raise nondilutive (not equity) capital to help scale their businesses.

After sufficiently proving out its tech, the firm made a pivot. According to Eyob, the previous model wasn’t experiencing enough growth and was incurring unsustainable costs. So the company began raising capital based on its own analytics in 2016. It had only raised $600,000 and was focused on East African startups with SME financing and Pay-Go solar home models. That number has since increased to over $125 million across Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

So why do these companies actually need debt financing? Here’s a clearer picture of the instance used at the beginning of this piece.

Imagine a VC-backed startup whose ultimate goal is to help scale up female-founded SMEs with one-year loans. The startup could easily use its equity to provide the capital for all the one-year loans. The payoff from the loans, after one year, would be the interest due to them. Or, it could put that capital into hiring developers, build a go-to-market strategy, hire a CTO, all of which would likely have payoffs that are up to a 100x multiple of the interest they would have made on the single SME loan that is tied up for an entire year.

So ultimately, debt would be an ideal source of nondilutive capital for the startup as they wouldn’t have to tie up equity for one year. Therefore, debt would be a much cheaper source of capital to scale up their operations, especially if it has scaled up to having tens of thousands of one-year loans. If it were equity, they would have to raise an endless amount with constant dilution as they scale.

In its five years of official operations, Lendable has given debt facilities to more than 20 startups. While the stage at which Lendable gives money differs, it is particular about startups that are post Series A. 

Apart from Carbon and FairMoney, some startups to have raised debt from Lendable include Tugende, Uploan, KoinWorks, Planet42, TerraPay, Watu Credit, Trella, Amartha, Payjoy, Solar Panda, Cars45 and MFS Africa. Collectively, Eyob said, Lendable has reached 1.2 million end borrowers through its partners and helped finance up to 290,000 SMEs.

Of the $125 million disbursed so far as debt, Eyob said the company has a default rate of about 0.01%. The reason behind this low number, Eyob reckons, is because Lendable ensures to be in constant conversation with the companies offering help, advice or connections when necessary.

“We view lending as a partnership and typically when both parties act in good faith, there are ways to solve problems,” Eyob said

The debt facilities start at $2 million but can go up to over $15 million, Eyob said. But while the global standard at which lenders pay back their debt investments is typically 4 to 6 years, Lendable expects the companies it gives cash to do so in 3 to 4 years

Eyob pushes that founders in emerging markets should be willing to take more debt financing to scale their startups. These days, startups tend to be high on giving out equity instead of weighing options on effectively using debt in critical points when scaling.

Equity could be used to help attract the best talent or expand into new markets. Still, debt proves essential when scaling up capital-intensive operations like working capital or pre-funding activities. More often than not, debt and equity are complementary to one another, and Lendable is hoping to use the new funds it’s raising to push that notion

I think, just like everywhere else in the world, debt and equity are tools that should be used to support one another, supporting the venture’s ultimate mission. We have lasting relationships with multiple VC teams across emerging markets that we work with to ultimately support one another’s partner investees.”

 

Sorbet raises $6M seed led by Viola Ventures to tackle the thorny financials of paid time off

By Mike Butcher

A US/Israeli startup, Sorbet — which is tackling what companies do with the financial risks as employees accrue Paid Time Off (PTO) — has raised $6 million in a Seed funding round led by Viola Ventures, with participation by Global Founders Capital, Meron Capital.

The economics of Paid Time Off is relatively hidden in the business world, but essentially,
Sorbet takes on the burden of this PTO from employers and then allows employees to spend it. This gives the employers far more control over the whole process and the ability to forecast its impact on the business.

Sorbet says that in the US, employees use only 72% PTO balances, even though it’s the most sought-after benefit. But this, effectively, comes out at 768 million unused days off a year, worth around $224 billion. This creates a difficult problem for CFO’s and accountants because its creates balance sheet liabilities on the company’s books, says Sorbet. If the employee doesn’t use all of their PTO, the employer can end up owing them a lot of money which creates a cash flow liability on the company’s books. So Sorbet buys out these PTO liabilities from employees, then loads the cash value of the PTO on prepaid Credit Cards for the employees.

Speaking to me on a call, CEO and cofounder Veetahl Eilat-Raichel, said: “We researched this whole idea of paid time off and found this huge, massive market failure and inefficiency around the way that PTO is constructed. It’s kind of one of those things where, on the face of it, there’s this boring bureaucratic payroll item that turns into a boring balance sheet item. But under it is a $224 billion problem for US businesses… If you think about it, employers are borrowing money from their employees at the worst terms possible and employees aren’t benefitting either. So everyone’s hurting here.”

She said: “Sorbet assumes the liability on ourselves and so then we can allow the company to control their cash flow and decide when they want to pay us back. They gain a lot of financial value because we are able to be very, very attractive on our funding. So it saves costs, it provides them with complete control of their cash flow, and it allows them to give out amazing financial benefits to employees at a time where we can all use some extra cash right now.”

The platform Sorbet has built will, it says, sync with calendars, HR, and payroll systems, identifies habits, and then proactively suggests personalized, pre-approved 3-6 hour “Micro Breaks”, 1-4 day “Micro Vacations” and +1 week Vacations. This, says the startup, increases PTO used by as much as 15%.

Employers can constantly renegotiate the terms of the loan with Sorbet, thus matching future cash flow, insulating themselves against salary raises (wage inflation), and take advantage of other benefits.

The cofounders are Eilat-Raichel, who previously worked at L’Oreal and Lockheed Martin, and a Fintech entrepreneur; Eliaz Shapira, co-founder and CPO; and Rami Kasterstein co-founder and board Member.

Vivid Money raises $73 million to build a European financial super app

By Romain Dillet

German startup Vivid Money has raised a new $73 million Series B funding round (€60 million) led by Greenoaks with existing investor Ribbit Capital also participating. Following today’s funding round, Vivid Money has reached a valuation of $436 million (€360 million).

Vivid Money could be considered as a Revolut competitor designed specifically for the Eurozone. Built on top of Solarisbank for the banking infrastructure, the company lets you send, receive, spend, invest and save money in different ways.

When you create an account, you get a German IBAN that starts with DE as well as a metal card. There are no card details on the card itself — everything is available in the app instead. Like other fintech startups, Vivid Money lets you control your card from the app — you can lock it and unlock it, add it to Google Pay and Apple Pay, etc.

After that, you can top up your account and hold dozens of different currencies. When you pay with your card abroad, the startup applies a small mark-up on the current exchange rate — you should get a better exchange rate than what you usually get with a regular bank.

In addition to this fairly standard feature set, Vivid Money offers stock trading with fractional shares. You can invest in stocks and ETFs and there’s no commission. Similarly, you can buy, hold and share cryptocurrencies from the app. The startup has partnered with CM Equity AG for those features.

The company also has a cashback program and a premium subscription for €9.90 per month. Paid users get higher limits on free cash withdrawals, the ability to create a virtual card, support for additional currencies and better cashback rewards.

Finally, users can create sub-accounts called pockets. You can move money around from one pocket to another and add other users to your pockets. Each pocket has its own IBAN, which means that you can pay for certain bills with a separate pocket. You can also associate your card with a specific pocket for upcoming purchases.

Vivid Money has managed to add a ton of features in no time. It now has a ton of money on its bank account. Now let’s see if it can attract a significant user base to compete with other, well-established European fintech players.

Weav raises $4.3M to knit together a universal API for commerce platforms

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Weav, which is building a universal API for commerce platforms, is emerging from stealth today with $4.3 million in funding from a bevy of investors, and a partnership with Brex.

Founded last year by engineers Ambika Acharya, Avikam Agur and Nadav Lidor after participating in the W20 YC batch, Weav joins the wave of fintech infrastructure companies that aim to give fintechs and financial institutions a boost. Specifically, Weav’s embedded technology is designed to give these organizations access to “real time, user-permissioned” commerce data that they can use to create new financial products for small businesses.  

Its products allow its customers to connect to multiple platforms with a single API that was developed specifically for the commerce platforms that businesses use to sell products and accept payments. Weav operates under the premise that allowing companies to build and embed new financial products creates new opportunities for e-commerce merchants, creators and other entrepreneurs. 

Left to right: Co-founders Ambika Acharya, Nadav Lidor and Avikam Agur; Image courtesy of Weav

In a short amount of time, Weav has seen impressive traction. Recently, Brex launched Instant Payouts for Shopify sellers using the Weav API. It supports platform integrations such as Stripe, Square, Shopify and PayPal. (More on that later.) Since its API went live in January, “thousands” of businesses have used new products and services built on Weav’s infrastructure, according to Lidor. Its API call volume is growing 300% month over month, he said.

And, the startup has attracted the attention of a number of big-name investors, including institutions and the founders of prominent fintech companies. Foundation Capital led its $4.3 million seed round, which also included participation from Y Combinator, Abstract Ventures, Box Group, LocalGlobe, Operator Partners, Commerce Ventures and SV Angel. 

A slew of founders and executives also put money in the round, including Brex founders Henrique Dubugras and Pedro Franceschi; Ramp founder Karim Atiyeh; Digits founders Jeff Seibert and Wayne Chang; Hatch founder Thomson Nguyen; GoCardless founder Matt Robinson and COO Carlos Gonzalez-Cadenas; Vouch founder Sam Hodges; Plaid’s Charley Ma as well as executives from fintechs such as Square, Modern Treasury and Pagaya.

Foundation Capital’s Angus Davis said his firm has been investing in fintech infrastructure for over a decade. And personally, before he became a VC, Davis was the founder and CEO of Upserve, a commerce software company. There, he says, he witnessed firsthand “the value of transactional data to enable new types of lending products.”

Foundation has a thesis around the type of embedded fintech that Weav has developed, according to Davis. And it sees a large market opportunity for a new class of financial applications to come to market built atop Weav’s platform.

“We were excited by Weav’s vision of a universal API for commerce platforms,” Davis wrote via email. “Much like Plaid and Envestnet brought universal APIs to banking for consumers, Weav enables a new class of B2B fintech applications for businesses.”

How it works

Weav says that by using its API, companies can prompt their business customers to “securely” connect their accounts with selling platforms, online marketplaces, subscription management systems and payment gateways. Once authenticated, Weav aggregates and standardizes sales, inventory and other account data across platforms and develops insights to power new products across a range of use cases, including lending and underwriting; financial planning and analysis; real-time financial services and business management tools.

For the last few years, there’s been a rise of API companies, as well as openness in the financial system that’s largely been focused on consumers, Lidor points out.

“For example, Plaid brings up very rich data about consumers, but when you think about businesses, oftentimes that data is still locked up in all kinds of systems,” he told TechCrunch. “We’re here to provide some of the building blocks and the access to data from everything that has to do with sales and revenue. And, we’re really excited about powering products that are meant to make the lives of small businesses and e-commerce, sellers and creators much easier and be able to get them access to financial products.”

In the case of Brex, Weav’s API allows the startup to essentially offer instant access to funds that otherwise would take a few days or a few weeks for businesses to access.

“Small businesses need access as quickly as possible to their revenue so that they can fund their operations,” Lidor said.

Brex co-CEO Henrique Dubugras said that Weav’s API gives the company the ability to offer real-time funding to more customers selling on more platforms, which saved the company “thousands of engineering hours” and accelerated its rollout timeline by months.

Clearly, the company liked what it saw, considering that its founders personally invested in Weav. Is Weav building the “Plaid for commerce”? Guess only time will tell.

Why Lawmakers Are Interested in Apple’s and Google’s ‘Rents’

By Gilad Edelman
You can’t understand the app store debate without knowing a crucial piece of antitrust jargon.

Should you give an anchor investor a stake in your fund’s management company?

By Annie Siebert
David Teten Contributor
David Teten is founder of Versatile VC and writes periodically at teten.com and @dteten.

Raising capital for a new fund is always hard. But should you give preferential economics or other benefits to a seed anchor investor who makes a material commitment to the fund?

These “VCs for investment management companies” are also known as GP stake investors or fund platforms. According to DocSend, “About half the VC firms in our survey had an anchor LP for their fund, and the average percentage that an anchor LP took in a first-time fund was 25%. The prevalence of anchor LPs among both early-stage and more established firms in our data suggests that securing an anchor investor can be crucial for signaling a firm’s credibility to other potential LPs.”

However, data about whether those anchors received preferential terms are very hard to obtain.

“In the hedge fund world, fund platforms are common and therefore more transparent,” Ha Duong, the investment principal at Ocean Investment, a single-family office based in Berlin, told me. “In venture, I haven’t seen many fund platforms.”

A number of firms provide infrastructure for emerging VCs, including Capria, Draper Venture Network, Oper8r and Recast Capital, and may provide capital or assistance in raising capital.

However, this ecosystem is much more built out in the private equity and hedge fund spaces. Examples include Archean Capital Partners, Gatewood Capital Partners, Lafayette Square, Nesvold Capital Partners and Reservoir Capital Group. Certain family offices also make these investments on an ad-hoc basis. As do some VCs: LuneX.com notes it is a dedicated blockchain and cryptocurrency fund that partners with a Southeast Asia-based VC, Golden Gate Ventures.

A GP stake investor brings some significant advantages:

  • Meaningful upfront initial capital, usually greatly shortening the lengthy fundraising process. This can be particularly helpful for founders who do not come from a wealthy background and may not be able to forgo an income for an 18-month fundraising period.
  • Credibility. This is proportionate to the stake investor’s credibility. Everyone else will assume the GP stake investor did extensive due diligence.
  • Assistance in business development, marketing, risk management and governance.
  • Ability to access LPs who require meaningful assets under management (AUM) before they’ll consider you.
  • Back office, in some cases.

There can also be meaningful disadvantages to working with a GP stake investor:

Brazil’s Loft adds $100M to its accounts, $700M to its valuation in a single month

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Nearly exactly one month ago, digital real estate platform Loft announced it had closed on $425 million in Series D funding led by New York-based D1 Capital Partners. The round included participation from a mix of new and existing investors such as DST, Tiger Global, Andreessen Horowitz, Fifth Wall and QED, among many others.

At the time, Loft was valued at $2.2 billion, a huge jump from its being just near unicorn territory in January 2020. The round marked one of the largest ever for a Brazilian startup.

Now, today, São Paulo-based Loft has announced an extension to that round with the closing of $100 million in additional funding that values the company at $2.9 billion. This means that the 3-year-old startup has increased its valuation by $700 million in a matter of weeks.

Baillie Gifford led the Series D-2 round, which also included participation from Tarsadia, Flight Deck, Caffeinated and others. Individuals also put money in the extension, including the founders of Better (Vishal Garg), GoPuff, Instacart, Kavak and Sweetgreen.

Loft has seen great success in its efforts to serve as a “one-stop shop” for Brazilians to help them manage the home buying and selling process. 

Image courtesy of Loft

In 2020, Loft saw the number of listings on its site increase “10 to 15 times,” according to co-founder and co-CEO Mate Pencz. Today, the company actively maintains more than 13,000 property listings in approximately 130 regions across São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, partnering with more than 30,000 brokers. Not only are more people open to transacting digitally, more people are looking to buy versus rent in the country.

“We did more than 6x YoY growth with many thousands of transactions over the course of 2020,” Pencz told TechCrunch at the time of the company’s last raise. “We’re now growing into the many tens of thousands, and soon hundreds of thousands, of active listings.”

The decision to raise more capital so soon was due to a variety of factors. For one, Loft has received “overwhelming investor interest” even after “a very, very oversubscribed main round,” Pencz said.

“We have seen a continued acceleration in our market share growth, especially in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the two markets we currently operate in,” he added. “We saw an opportunity to grow even faster with additional capital.”

Pencz also pointed out that Baillie Gifford has relatively large minimum check size requirements, which led to the extension being conducted at a higher price and increased the total round size “by quite a bit to be able to accommodate them.”

While the company was less forthcoming about its financials as of late, it told me last year that it had notched “over $150 million in annualized revenues in its first full year of operation” via more than 1,000 transactions.

The company’s revenues and GMV (gross merchandise value) “increased significantly” in 2020, according to Pencz, who declined to provide more specifics. He did say those figures are “multiples higher from where they were,” and that Loft has “a very clear horizon to profitability.”

Pencz and Florian Hagenbuch founded Loft in early 2018 and today serve as its co-CEOs. The aim of the platform, in the company’s words, is “bringing Latin American real estate into the e-commerce age by developing online alternatives to analogue legacy processes and leveraging data to create transparency in highly opaque markets.” The U.S. real estate tech company with the closest model to Loft’s is probably Zillow, according to Pencz.

In the United States, prospective buyers and sellers have the benefit of MLSs, which in the words of the National Association of Realtors, are private databases that are created, maintained and paid for by real estate professionals to help their clients buy and sell property. Loft itself spent years and many dollars in creating its own such databases for the Brazilian market. Besides helping people buy and sell homes, it offers services around insurance, renovations and rentals.

In 2020, Loft also entered the mortgage business by acquiring one of the largest mortgage brokerage businesses in Brazil. The startup now ranks among the top-three mortgage originators in the country, according to Pencz. When it comes to helping people apply for mortgages, he likened Loft to U.S.-based Better.com.

This latest financing brings Loft’s total funding raised to an impressive $800 million. Other backers include Brazil’s Canary and a group of high-profile angel investors such as Max Levchin of Affirm and PayPal, Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale, Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger and David Vélez, CEO and founder of Brazilian fintech Nubank. In addition, Loft has also raised more than $100 million in debt financing through a series of publicly listed real estate funds.

Loft plans to use its new capital in part to expand across Brazil and eventually in Latin America and beyond. The company is also planning to explore more M&A opportunities.

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