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Visa’s Africa strategy banks on startup partnerships

By Jake Bright

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

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

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

Africa strategy and team

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

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

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

visa africa

Image Credits: Visa

Mobile payments firms in India are now scrambling to make money

By Manish Singh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Search for a business model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grab hires Peter Oey as its chief financial officer

By Catherine Shu

Grab announced today that it has hired Peter Oey as its new chief financial officer. Prior to joining Grab, Oey was the chief financial officer at LegalZoom, an online legal services company based near Los Angeles.

Before that, he served the same role at Mylife.com, an online platform that aggregates information about people based on public records. Oey also held financial leadership positions at Activision for twelve years, including corporate controller.

In a statement, Grab said Oey will be based in Singapore and report to co-founder and CEO Anthony Tan. He will also work with Grab president Ming Maa, who took over many responsibilities from Grab’s last CFO, Linda Hoglund, when she left in 2016. Grab said Maa will continue to lead its strategic business planning.

Grab, which acquired Uber’s Southeast Asia business in March 2018, has reportedly been in discussions to merge with merge with rival GoJek.

Grab, whose services include ride-sharing, food delivery and online financial services provider GrabPay, also announced in February that it had raised a total of $856 million from Japanese investors Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group and TIS INTEC, to grow its financial services and digital payments infrastructure.

In a press statement, the company said that in 2019, GrabFood’s gross merchandise volume grew by over 400%, while GrabPay increased payment volume by 170%, thanks to strong performance in Indonesia.

Tan said “Last year, we made tremendous progress in growing our food delivery, payments and financial services business. The growth of these businesses give us a good foundation for achieving long-term sustainable growth for our company. I’m excited to welcome Peter to the Grab family where his extensive experience scaling rapidly growing technology companies makes him a valuable addition to our business.”

Grab has raised a total of about $9.9 billion from investors including SoftBank Vision Fund, which invested $1.46 billion into the company last year. Tan told CNBC last November that the company will not go public until its entire business is profitable.

Inside Udaan’s push to digitize India’s B2B retail market

By Manish Singh

During a recent visit, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella reiterated his company’s commitment to India and revealed a new fund to help SaaS startups in the country.

And then Nadella and Anant Maheshwari, president of Microsoft India, discussed the success story of B2B platform Udaan in three separate onstage public appearances.

Headquartered in Bangalore, Udaan is a business-to-business e-commerce marketplace founded by former Flipkart executives Amod Malviya, Vaibhav Gupta and Sujeet Kumar. The startup used Microsoft’s free Azure credits to scale in its early days; as in some other markets, Microsoft, Amazon and Google offer free cloud credits in bulk to early, promising Indian startups in a bid to onboard them and see if their solutions could be relevant to other clients down the road.

More often than not, these bets don’t work, but sometimes they pay off. Udaan, valued at about $2.7 billion after raising nearly $900 million from investors like Lightspeed Venture Partners, Tencent Holdings, GGV Capital and Hillhouse Capital, has become one of Microsoft India’s biggest clients in the last three years.

Udaan was founded in 2016 at the tail end of India’s e-commerce frenzy, when scores of startups that had attempted to build business-to-consumer online shopping platforms were conceding defeat.

At the time, very few players — like Power2SME and Moglix (industrial products) and Bizongo (packaging for businesses) — were looking at the business-to-business market in India.

Udaan is valued at about $2.7B after raising nearly $900M from investors like Lightspeed Venture Partners, Tencent Holdings, GGV Capital and Hillhouse Capital and has become one of Microsoft India’s biggest clients.

But despite venturing into a road less traveled, Udaan had ambitious dreams. The startup was building its own logistics network, a herculean task that even Flipkart and Amazon avoided to a certain measure for years, yet it was reaching an audience that had never sold online.

Tech giants should let startups defer cloud payments

By Josh Constine

Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are the landlords. Amidst the Coronavirus economic crisis, startups need a break from paying rent. They’re in a cash crunch. Revenue has stopped flowing in, capital markets like venture debt are hesitant, and startups and small-to-medium sized businessesf are at risk of either having to lay off huge numbers of employees and/or shut down.

Meanwhile, the tech giants are cash rich. Their success this decade means they’re able to weather the storm for a few months. Their customers cannot.

Cloud infrastructure costs area amongst many startups’ top expenses besides payroll. The option to pay these cloud bills later could save some from going out of business or axing huge parts of their staff. Both would hurt the tech industry, the economy, and the individuals laid off. But most worryingly for the giants, it could destroy their customer base.

The mass layoffs have already begun. Soon we’re sure to start hearing about sizable companies shutting down, upended by COVID-19. But there’s still an opportunity to stop a larger bloodbath from ensuing.

That’s why I have a proposal: cloud relief.

The platform giants should let startups and small businesses defer their cloud infrastructure payments for three to six months until they can pay them back in installments. Amazon AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, these companies’ additional infrastructure products, and other platform providers should let customers pause payment until the worst of the first wave of the COVID-19 economic disruption passes. Profitable SAAS providers like Salesforce could give customers an extension too.

There are plenty of altruistic reasons to do this. They have the resources to help businesses in need. We all need to support each other in these tough times. This could protect tons of families. Some of these startups are providing important services to the public and even discounting them, thereby ramping up their bills while decreasing revenue.

Then there are the PR reasons. After years of techlash and anti-trust scrutiny, here’s the chance for the giants to prove their size can be beneficial to the world. Recruiters could use it as a talking point. “We’re the company that helped save Silicon Valley.” There’s an explanation for them squirreling away so much cash: the rainy day has finally arrived.

But the capitalistic truth and the story they could sell to Wall Street is that it’s not good for our business if our customers go out of business. Look at what happened to infrastructure providers in the dotcom crash. When tons of startups vaporized, so did the profits for those selling them hosting and tools. Any government stimulus for businesses would be better spent by them paying employees than paying the cloud companies that aren’t in danger. Saving one future Netflix from shutting down could cover any short-term loss from helping 100 other businesses.

This isn’t a handout. These startups will still owe the money. They’d just be able to pay it a little later, spread out over their monthly bills for a year or so. Once mass shelter-in-place orders subside, businesses can operate at least a little closer to normal, and investors get less cautious, customers will have the cash they need to pay their dues. Plus interest if necessary.

Meanwhile, they’ll be locked in and loyal customers for the foreseeable future. Cloud vendors could gate the deferment to only customers that have been with them for X amount of months or that have already spent Y amount on the platform. The vendors could also offer the deferment on the condition that customers add a year or more to their existing contracts. Founders will remember who gave them the benefit of the doubt.

cloud ice cream cone imagine

Consider it a marketing expense. Platforms often offer discounts or free trials to new customers. Now it’s existing customers that need a reprieve. Instead of airport ads, the giants could spend the money ensuring they’ll still have plenty of developers building atop them by the end of 2020.

Beyond deferred payment, platforms could just push the due date on all outstanding bills to three or six months from now. Alternatively, they could offer a deep discount such as 50% off for three months if they didn’t want to deal with accruing debt and then servicing it. Customers with multi-year contracts could offered the opportunity to downgrade or renegotiate their contracts without penalties. Any of these might require giving sales quota forgiveness to their account executives.

It would likely be far too complicated and risky to accept equity in lieu of cash, a cut of revenue going forward, or to provide loans or credit lines to customers. The clearest and simplest solution is to let startups skip a few payments, then pay more every month later until they clear their debt. When asked for comment or about whether they’re considering payment deferment options, Microsoft declined, and Amazon and Google did not respond.

To be clear, administering payment deferment won’t be simple or free. There are sure to be holes that cloud economists can poke in this proposal, but my goal is to get the conversation startup. It could require the giants to change their earnings guidance. Rewriting deals with significantly sized customers will take work on both ends, and there’s a chance of breach of contract disputes. Giants would face the threat of customers recklessly using cloud resources before shutting down or skipping town.

Most taxing would be determining and enforcing the criteria of who’s eligible. The vendors would need to lay out which customers are too big so they don’t accidentally give a cloud-intensive but healthy media company a deferment they don’t need. Businesses that get questionably excluded could make a stink in public. Executing on the plan will require staff when giants are stretched thin trying to handle logistics disruptions, misinformation, and accelerating work-from-home usage.

Still, this is the moment when the fortunate need to lend a hand to the vulnerable. Not a hand out, but a hand up. Companies with billions in cash in their coffers could save those struggling to pay salaries. All the fundraisers and info centers and hackathons are great, but this is how the tech giants can live up to their lofty mission statements.

We all live in the cloud now. Don’t evict us. #CloudRelief

Thanks to Falon Fatemi, Corey Quinn, Ilya Fushman, Jason Kim, Ilya Sukhar, and Michael Campbell for their ideas and feedback on this proposal

Plastiq raises $75M to help small businesses use credit cards more

By Natasha Mascarenhas

When Eliot Buchanan tried to use his credit card to pay his Harvard tuition bill, the payment was rejected because the university said it doesn’t accept credit. Realizing the same problem exists for thousands of different transactions like board, rent and vendor payments, he launched Plastiq. Plastiq helps people use credit cards to pay, or get paid, for anything

Plastiq today announced that it has raised $75 million in venture capital in a Series D round led by B Capital Group. Kleiner Perkins, Khosla Ventures, Accomplice and Top Tier Capital Partners also participated in the round. The round brings the company’s total known venture capital raised to more than $140 million.

To use Plastiq, users enter their credit card information on Plastiq’s platform. In return, Plastiq will charge you a 2.5% fee and get your bills paid. While Plastiq was started with consumers in mind, SMBs have now accounted for 90% of the revenue, according to Buchanan. The new financing round will invest in building out features to give SMBs faster services around payments and processing. 

Plastiq provides a way for SMBs and consumers to pay their bills and make sure they have reliable cash flow. For example, restaurants sometimes have a drop in revenue due to seasonality or, as we’re experiencing now with COVID-19, pandemic lockdowns. Or tourism companies for cities that are struggling to attract visitors. Those companies still need cash flow, and using Plastiq’s service, they can use credit cards to pay suppliers even in an off season. 

There is no shortage of competition from other companies also trying to solve pain points in small-business cash flow. According to Buchanan, Plastiq’s biggest competitors are traditional lenders, as well as companies like Kabbage and Fundbox. Similar claims could be made about Brex, which offers a credit card for startups to access capital faster. 

Kabbage provides funding to SMBs through automated business loans. The SoftBank-backed company landed $200 million in a revolving credit line back in July, fresh off of landing strong partnerships with banks and giants like Alibaba to access more customers. Kabbage loans out roughly $2-3 billion to SMBs every year. 

Plastiq, according to its release, is also on track to make more than $2 billion in transactions. But unlike Kabagge, Plastiq doesn’t issue loans or credit, it just unlocks a payment opportunity.

“SMBs don’t need to be burdened with additional debt or additional loans,” Buchanan said. “So rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, let’s use a behavior they have already earned.” 

Buchanan would not disclose Plastiq’s current valuation or revenue, but he did say that it’s not too far away from $100 million in revenue run rate. The company’s revenue has grown 150% from 2018 to 2019. 

The company also noted that it has surpassed “well over 1 million users,” up 150% in unique new users from 2018 to 2019.

In terms of profitability, Buchanan said that “we could be profitable if we wanted to be,” noting that Plastiq’s revenue and margins could lead them toward profitability if they wanted to focus less on growth. But he added they don’t plan to “slow down” the growth engine any time soon — especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because the Series D round closed at the end of 2019, Buchanan said the pandemic did not impact the deal. However, the company had planned to time the announcement with tax season. Now, as small businesses struggle to secure capital and stay afloat due to lockdowns across the country, Plastiq’s new raise feels more fitting. 

“Our customers are more thankful for solutions like ours as traditional sources of lending are drying up and not as easy to access” Buchanan said. “Hopefully, we can measure how many businesses make it through this because of us.” 

The 140-person company is currently hiring across product and engineering roles.

Africa turns to mobile payments as a tool to curb COVID-19

By Jake Bright

Africa is using digital finance as a means to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Governments and startups on the continent are implementing measures to shift a greater volume of payment transactions toward mobile money and away from cash — which the World Health Organization flagged as a conduit for the spread of 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, fintech — and startups focused on financial inclusion — now receive the majority of VC funding annually in Africa, according to recent data.

As COVID-19 cases began to grow in the continent’s major economies last week, the continent’s leader in digital payment adoption — Kenya — turned to mobile-money as a public-health tool.

The country’s largest teleco, Safaricom, implemented a fee-waiver on East Africa’s leading mobile-money product, M-Pesa, to reduce the physical exchange of currency in response to COVID-19.

Image Credits: Flickr

The company announced that all person-to-person (P2P) transactions under 1,000 Kenyan Schillings (≈ $10) would be free for three months.

The move came after Safaricom met with the country’s Central Bank and per a directive from Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta “to explore ways of deepening mobile-money usage to reduce risk of spreading the virus through physical handling of cash,” according to a release provided to TechCrunch from Safaricom.

Kenya has one of the highest rates of mobile-money adoption in the world, largely due to the dominance of M-Pesa in the country, which stands as Africa’s 6th largest economy. Across Kenya’s population of 53 million, M-Pesa has 20.5 million customers and a network of 176,000 agents.

M-PESA Sector Stats 4Q 2019 per Kenya’s Communications Authority

With all major providers in Kenya there are 32 million subscribers, which means roughly 60% of the country’s population has access to mobile-money.

Ghana is also using digital finance as a monetary policy lever to reduce the spread of COVID-19

On March 20, the West African country’s central bank directed mobile money providers to waive fees on transactions of GH₵100 (≈ $18), with restrictions on transactions to withdraw cash from mobile-wallets.

Ghana’s monetary body also eased KYC requirements on mobile-money, allowing citizens to use existing mobile phone registrations to open accounts with the major digital payment providers, according to a March 18 Bank of Ghana release.

The trajectory of the coronavirus in Africa is prompting more countries and tech companies to include mobile finance as part of a broader response. The continent’s COVID-19 cases by country were in the single digits until recently, but those numbers spiked last week leading the World Health Organization to sound an alarm.

“About 10 days ago we had 5 countries affected, now we’ve got 30,” WHO Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti said at a press conference Thursday. “It’s has been an extremely rapid…evolution.” 

Source; World Health Organization

By the World Health Organization’s stats Monday there were 1321 COVID-19 cases in Sub-Saharan Africa and 34 confirmed deaths related to the virus — up from 463 cases and 10 deaths last Wednesday.

The country with 40% of the region’s cases is South Africa, which declared a national disaster last week, banned public gatherings and announced travel restrictions on the U.S.

Unlike Ghana and Kenya, the government in Africa’s second largest economy hasn’t issued directives toward mobile payments, but the situation with COVID-19 is pushing fintech startups to act, according to Yoco CEO Katlego Maphai.

The Series B stage venture develops and sells digital payment hardware and services for small businesses on a network of 80,000 clients that processes roughly $500 million annually.

Image Credits: Jake Bright

With the growth in coronavirus cases in South Africa, Yoco has issued a directive to clients to encourage customers to use the contactless payment option on its point of sale machines. The startup has also accelerated its development of a remote payment product, that would enable transfers on its client network via a weblink.

“This is an opportunity to start driving contactless adoption,” Maphai told TechCrunch on a call from Cape Town.

In Nigeria — home to Africa’s largest economy and population of 200 million — the growth of COVID-19 cases has shifted the country toward electronic payments and prompted one of the country’s largest digital payments startups to act.

Lagos based venture Paga made fee adjustments, allowing merchants to accept payments from Paga customers for free — a measure “aimed to help slow the spread of the coronavirus by reducing cash handling in Nigeria,” according to a company release.

Parts of Lagos — which is connected to Nigeria’s largest commercial hub of Lagos State — have begun to require digital payments in response to COVID-19, according to Paga’s CEO Tayo Oviosu .

“We’re seeing some stores that are saying they are not accepting cash anymore,” he told TechCrunch on a call from Lagos.

Cash only Nigeria Paga

Image Credits: Paga

Paga already offers free P2P transfers on its multi-channel network of 24,840 agents and 14 million customers. The startup, that recently expanded to Mexico and partnered with Visa, will also allow free transfers up to roughly 5000 Naira (≈ $15) from customer accounts to bank accounts, to encourage more digital payments use in Nigeria.

Paga’s CEO believes the current COVID-19 crisis will encourage more digital finance adoption in Nigeria, which has shown a cash-is-king reluctance by parts of the population to use mobile payments.

“I think it will help move the needle, but it won’t be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back,” he said.

Time and research will determine if efforts of African governments and tech companies to encourage digital payments over physical currency yield results in halting the spread of COVID-19 on the continent.

It is a unique case-study of mobile finance in Africa being employed to impact human behavior during a public health emergency.

Pex buys Dubset to build YouTube ContentID for TikTok & more

By Josh Constine

Social networks are in for a rude copyright awakening. A new European Union law called Article 17 essentially eradicates safe harbor and requires that they’ve made their “best effort” to get licenses from rights holders for all content on their platform. If a user uploads a video with a popular song in the background, tech platforms can’t just take it down if requested. They’ll be liable if they didn’t already try to get permission.

That’s good news for musicians and film producers who are more likely to get paid. But it could hurt influencers and creators whose clips and remixes might be blocked or have their revenue diverted. It will certainly be a huge headache for content-sharing sites.

That’s where Pex comes in. The profitable royalty attribution startup founded in 2014 scans social networks and other user-generated content sites for rightsholders’ content. Pex then lets them negotiate licensing with the platforms, request a take down, demand attribution and/or track the consumption statistics. It has collected a database of over 20 billion audio and video tracks found on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitch, Twitter and more. It’s like an independent YouTube ContentID.

Today that business gets a big boost as Pex is acquiring Dubset, which has spent 10 years tackling the problem of getting remixes and multi-song DJ sets legalized for streaming on services like Spotify, to some success. The $11.3 million-funded Dubset does fingerprinting of 45 million tracks from over 50,000 rights holders down to the second so the artists behind the source material get paid.

Pex has come a long way from when CEO Rasty Turek tried to build a Shazam for video. “It took me years to figure out how to do it technically, but there was no market for it,” he tells me. Turns out that the technology was perfect for spotting illegal usage of copyrighted songs.

Now Pex will gain Dubset’s connections to tons of record labels and other rightsholders in what two sources close to the deal say is an acquisition priced between $25 million and $50 million. “There are very few companies in the music business that have successfully licensed as much catalog as Dubset, and the music rights database they’ve built is massive and rare,” Turek tells TechCrunch exclusively before the deal’s formal announcement tomorrow.

Together, they’ll be pushing Pex’s new Attribution Engine that establishes a three-sided marketplace for content. Instead of just working with rightsholders, the fresh tech can plug directly into big platforms and instantly identify copyrighted audio and visual files as short as one second. It can even suss out cover versions of songs via melody matching, as well as compressed, cropped and modified variations. Creators can also use it to ensure the source material they’re remixing or turning into memes is given proper attribution or a cut of revenue.

The Attribution Engine earns money by facilitating the licenses and payments between platforms, rightsholders and creators. It’s free to register content with the service as well as for platforms to perform identification scans.

Indeed, the Attribution Engine is free for rightsholders to register their content and free for platforms to run identification scans on what’s uploaded to them. The hope is that by creating a simpler path to cooperation and revenue sharing, more rightsholders will make their content accessible for use on social networks or in remixes. It could also grant platforms protection from Article 17 liability as they’ll be able to say that Pex made its best effort to get content usage approval from rightsholders.

“Basically every platform in the world that operates in the EU will have to identify all copyrighted content on their platform as it comes in, or go back and identify all of it,” says Dubset chief strategy office Bob Barbiere. “Dubset was really built to serve at the DJ or content creator level . . . doing it purely for the purposes of mix and remix content. Pex does it in a much bigger way for the platforms.”

For up-and-coming platforms like TikTok competitors Dubsmash or Triller, Pex’s business model is a gift. They don’t have to pay for the ID service until they’re ready to cut licensing deals with rightsholders, when Pex adds a fee on top. Trying to build this stuff from scratch could be slow and hugely expensive, given YouTube’s still perfecting its ContentID system eight years in.

Pex will have to manage the careful balance of staying ahead of regulation but not so far that it’s building technology people won’t need for a long time. European Union states have until June 21, 2021 to implement Article 17 with local laws. “We don’t want others to out-innovate us, but we also don’t want to out-innovate ourselves out of existence by being too early and then waiting for the market to catch up to us,” Turek explains.

Image via HelpCloud

The internet needs this kind of infrastructure because we’re still at the beginning of the age of the remix. TikTok has proven how recontextualizing a song or vocal track with new visuals can create chains of jokes and content that go massively viral. The app productizes the Harlem Shake phenomenon, whereby people promote their own takes on a piece of content, drawing attention to the original and all the other versions. But these webs of remixes could be severed if platforms and rightsholders can’t forge licensing agreements.

“I hope that thanks to Pex, 20 years from now people will not have to think about copyright,” Turek concludes. “Any content they produce and distribute on the open internet will be automatically attributed to them and generate revenue if they so choose.” That could allow more people to turn their passion for creation into their profession, whether they’re building an app, writing a song or remixing a song into a meme for an app.

Alipay owner Ant Financial takes minority stake in Klarna

By Natasha Lomas

Some big moves in the payments platform space: Ant Financial Group, the owner of China’s Alipay payment platform has announced it’s taking a minority stake in Swedish payments platform Klarna — which has a strong European presence and a flagship product that lets shoppers buy now and pay later in interest-free instalments (typically 14 or 30 days after the purchase).

The pair have not disclosed terms of the deal but Reuters reported the stake amounts to less than 1% and was made up of existing and new shares. It also cites its source telling it the stake was done at a “slight uptick” to Klarna’s $460 million funding round last August — which valued the company at $5.5BN.

A spokeswomen for Klarna told us it’s not disclosing the value of the investment but she confirmed Reuters reporting, saying the stake is less than 1%.

Ant Financial is part of Chinese ecommerce and retail services multinational giant, Alibaba Group, which took a 33% stake in the fintech affiliate back in 2018 that gave it direct ownership of its suite of products and services — including an investment fund, micro-loans, insurance services, a digital bank and the Alipay mobile payments platform. 

Klarna and Alipay had already been collaborating via Alibaba’s global ecommerce marketplace, AliExpress — which offers Klarna’s ‘Pay later’ option in multiple markets.

Now the pair touted their deepening partnership as set to bring more “innovative and convenient” financial services to consumers worldwide.

They are also clearly hoping to further grease the wheels of East to West ecommerce by expanding opportunities for China’s growing middle class to tap into Klarna’s network of European and global merchants via their preferred local online payment method.

Commenting in a statement, Klarna CEO Sebastian Siemiątkowski said: “For too long consumers have had to endure non-intuitive, boring and overly complex services when shopping both online and offline. At the heart of this cooperation between Klarna and Alipay is a shared ambition of innovating truly superior shopping experiences and creating destinations of inspiration for consumers across the world.”

“Alipay, and the wider Alibaba Group, have truly set the global pace on retail innovation and the app economy. We are delighted in this confidence shown in Klarna in defining the future of payments and shopping and are very much looking forward to working together further in the future,” he added.

Klarna said its technology is being used by more than 200,000 retailers and e-commerce platforms globally at this point, including AliExpress, H&M, ASOS, Expedia Group, IKEA, Farfetch, Adidas, Spotify, Samsung and Nike .

Last year it said it added over 75,000 new merchants — describing itself as a “strategic growth partner” for these retailers and claiming it’s driving “millions of referrals and traffic each month” from owned channels to partner merchants from consumers who it says are actively seeking where they can shop with Klarna. (It claims a base of 85 million shoppers.)

Ant Financial, meanwhile, has been working on expanding Alipay’s global footprint by cutting local deals in markets outside China where it cannot build up its transaction volume organically. Notably, back in 2015, it  took a stake in India’s One97 — which operates a major local mobile payment platform, Paytm.

TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden contributed to this report

Podium rolls out payments for its customer-focused local-business SaaS service

By Alex Wilhelm

Podium, a Utah-based SaaS company focused on small business customer interactions, added payments technology to its product suite today. The move accretes a new income stream to the company’s quickly growing annual recurring revenue (ARR).

While I tend to stay away from product news, Podium’s decision to add payment technology to its service hit a number of themes that we’ve recently explored, like the rise of payments technology players (Finix, for example) and how it is increasingly common to see fintech and finservices solutions find their way into new places.

And Podium is one of SaaS’s fastest-growing companies. Cribbing from some prior reporting, Podium’s ARR reached roughly $30 million at the end of 2017. It expected to reach $60 million by the end of 2018, and had $100 million in its sights for 2019. Those figures, collected in November, are now decidedly out of date. But they illustrate how quickly Podium was growing before it added payments to its arsenal.

Update: Adding a little clarification here. The addition of payments to Podium’s tech allows its customers (the companies using its software) to collect payments from their own customers. This gives Podium customers the ability charge folks for their goods and services in a manner that is integrated into the rest of the software company’s service. 

I wanted to dig into the news, so I emailed with Eric Rea, the company’s CEO. What follows is an email exchange (due to scheduling difficulties). We’ll chat after about what was said.

Context

TechCrunch: Did Podium build out its own payments tech or does it employ third-party tech like Finix?

Podium: Podium has a great relationship with Stripe, a fellow Y Combinator company, which was partnered with our own technology to make it work best for our customers. This was key in order to create a payment tool that actually works in the kinds of businesses we work with. [The] majority of businesses who operate from a physical location, from dentist offices and home services companies to larger retail stores, have very specific needs that haven’t been met by traditional card present or POS systems. As a result, many of them rely on mailing paper invoices or awkward conversations where someone gives their card info over the phone. Putting Podium’s platform technology alongside Stripe’s best-in-class processing tech was able to finally meet this need for the companies that create roughly a third of the US non-farming GDP.

TechCrunch: Does the majority of the economics (profit/margin) from the payments product accrue to the Podium client, or Podium itself?

Podium: The genius behind this product is just how immense the economic impact is for these companies. For many of them, they are able to create a whole new convenient way to serve their customers through conversational commerce, and in doing so, they are able to be more successful.

One of our major furniture retailers that participated in the beta of Payments told me about how there has been a completely new selling motion that has opened up for their stores through this product. One of their biggest leaks was when customers would come in and look at a couch or dresser, but didn’t know if dimensions would work in their home. Once they left, there was a steep drop off getting them back into the store to actually make the purchase.

Now, with Payments, they are able to give all the info to their customer, have them check it out in their home and then text them if it works or not. They can then use Payments to collect payment in the very same text conversation and the delivery crew can complete the purchase all in the same day without having the customer return to the store. So it’s not just shifting where they are processing their payments, but opening up new revenue that they would never have had before they started using Payments.

Then consider the ancient process that businesses are still using who invoice for services, like a dentist or a home services provider. Majority are still using mailed statements and invoices or phone conversations. Believe it or not, the expenses for these are immense. Not only that, but the turnaround and success rates are abysmal, meaning these businesses have to wait weeks to months in order to receive payment, if at all. With Payments, it is as quick as a seamless text.

In our beta, Payments tripled the conversion rates over invoices and reduced employee workload related to payment by 80%. In healthcare, for example, 40% of customers send payment within 48 hours. To get that same level through their legacy operations, it would take 14 days to get to that point. The economic impact on that speed and completion is astounding for these businesses.

On the processing, Podium sees the profit on the transaction cost.

TechCrunch: Does Podium anticipate that payments will provide material revenue over the next 18 months? 36?

Podium: Yes. We see this as being the second major phase of the Podium platform. We have been proud to have created one of the fastest growing SaaS companies in history through our existing products. We have 43,000 businesses currently using Podium, and one of the biggest things they have all been telling us is how much they need a tool like this. Just in our existing customer base and verticals, they are creating more than $100B in gross processing volume annually in payments that are better suited to be done through this tool.

TechCrunch: How long did it take to build out the tech?

Podium: This product actually took the longest of all of our products to develop, given the unique expectations and requirements it took on the technology side. This product has been about a year in the making. When it comes to the business of making money and us being the facilitator of that, we take it very seriously to ensure the tool is secure and stable.

TechCrunch: What percent of Podium customers are good candidates to use the tech?

Podium: Almost universal. We gave a lot of intention behind making this a tool that would work across market verticals so that our customers could provide a better experience for their customers and get paid faster at the same time.

TechCrunch: What is the fee and cost structure?

Podium: We charge a flat rate for processing, which is intentional to allow transparency and consistency in their fees.

So what?

It’s not a surprise that Podium is taking the economics of the payment processing (with Stripe doing well at the same time). This means that Podium’s business itself will grow thanks to its addition.

At the same time, the clients using Podium’s platform also do well. If the feature can assist as many companies as Podium expects, then it could help a host of small, local firms boost their sales by improving their respective close rates. Even merely faster payments could help smaller shops better manage their cash flow.

So this feels a bit like a win-win. And it goes to show that the addition of payments to other bits of tech is more than hype (Finix will like that). Instead, it feels like adding the ability for transactions to flow directly through one’s platform is going to rise in popularity. Podium is not the first to the trend, and it won’t be the last. But it is a company that could accelerate the trend thanks to its scale and, so far at least, success.

What we’d love to see, frankly, is an S-1 from Podium this year; that would allow us to better dissect its business. Now at least we’ll have one more thing to look for when we do get the document.

Facebook’s Libra Association adds crypto prime broker Tagomi

By Josh Constine

TechCrunch has learned that $28 million-funded crypto startup Tagomi will be the newest member of the Libra Association that governs the Facebook-backed Libra stablecoin. A formal announcement is slated for Friday or next week.

Tagomi offers a platform that helps large traders and funds easily access cryptocurrency markets. The news comes days after Libra added Shopify, a reversal of dwindling membership after major partners like Visa, PayPal and Stripe dropped out late last year.

We’ve reached out to the Libra Association and have been promised a response by Facebook’s communications team.

Joining Libra means Tagomi will be expected to contribute at least $10 million toward developing the cryptocurrency, with that investment eligible to reap dividends from interest earned on money kept in the Libra Reserve. Tagomi will also operate a node that validates transactions coming through the Libra blockchain.

Tagomi was founded by Jennifer Campbell, a former investor at Union Square Ventures, which is also a Libra Association Member. The company has 25 employees across five offices. Tagomi will be the 22nd member of the Libra Association, according to information from the startup’s press representative, who was apparently supposed to hold this news until later. “Tagomi is joining the Libra Foundation and Jennifer will be the newest member,” they emailed TechCrunch. We’ll update this story following our interview with Campbell tomorrow.

Campbell and Tagomi will offer technical and policy support to Libra in an effort to make the cryptocurrency more safe and compliant with international law. That will be critical for the Libra Association to get the green light from regulators for a launch in 2020 like it originally planned. Lawmakers in the U.S. and EU have slammed Libra in hearings and the press over its potential to facilitate money laundering, harm privacy and destabilize the global financial system.

The full membership of the Libra Association is now:

Current Members:

Facebook’s Calibra, Tagomi, Shopify, PayU, Farfetch, Lyft, Spotify, Uber, Illiad SA, Anchorage, Bison Trails, Coinbase, Xapo, Andreessen Horowitz, Union Square Ventures, Breakthrough Initiatives, Ribbit Capital, Thrive Capital, Creative Destruction Lab, Kiva, Mercy Corps, Women’s World Banking.

Former Members:

Vodafone, Visa, Mastercard, Stripe, PayPal, Mercado Pago, Bookings Holdings, eBay.

Fintech startups raised $34B in 2019

By Manish Singh

Financial services startups raised less money in 2019 than they did in 2018 as VC firms looked to back late stage firms and focused on developing markets, a new report has revealed.

According to research firm CB Insights’ annual report published this week, fintech startups across the world raised $33.9 billion* in total last year across 1,912 deals*, down from $40.8 billion they picked up by participating in 2,049 deals the year before.

It’s a comprehensive report, which we recommend you read in full here (your email is required to access it), but below are some of the key takeaways.

  • Early stage startups struggled to attract money: Per the report, financing for startups looking to close Seed or Series A dropped to a five-year low in 2019. On the flip side, money pouring into Series B or beyond startups was at record five-year high.

    Early-stage deals dropped to a 12-quarter low as deal share globally shifts to mid- and late-stages (CB Insights)

  • Emerging and frontier markets were at the centre stage of the most of the action: South America, Africa, Australia, and Southeast Asia all topped their annual highs last year.
  • Asia outpaced Europe in the second half of last year on both number of deals and bulk of capital raised. In Q3, European startups raised $1.6 billion through 95 deals, compared to $1.8 billion amassed by Asian startups across 157 deals. In Q4, a similar story was at play: European startups participated in 100 rounds to raise $1.2 billion, compared to $2.14 billion* raised by Asian startups across 125 deals*.
  • Emergence of 24 new fintech unicorns in 2019: 8 fintech startups including Next Insurance, Bight Health, Flywire, High Radius, Ripple, and Figure attained the unicorn status in Q4 2019, and 16 others made it to the list throughout the rest of the last year.

    The fintech market globally today has 67 unicorns as of earlier this month (CB Insights)

  • Insurtech sector, or startups such as Lemonade, Hippo, Next, Wefox, Bright Health that are offering insurance services, got a major boost last year. They raised 6.2 billion last year, up from $3.2 billion in 2018.
  • Startups building solutions such as invoicing and taxing services and payroll and payments solutions for small and medium businesses also received the nod of VCs. In the U.S. alone, where more than 140 startups are operating in the space, raised $4 billion. In many more markets, such startups are beginning to emerge. In India, for instance Open and NiYo are building neo-banks for small businesses and they both raised money last year.
  • Nearly 50% of all funding to fintech startups was concentrated in 83-mega rounds (those of size $100 million or above.): According to the research firm, 2019 was a record year for such rounds across the globe, except in Europe.

    2019 saw 83 mega-rounds totaling $17.2B, a record year in every market except Europe

  • Funding of Germany-based startups reached an annual high: 65 deals in 2019 resulted in $1.79 billion raise, compared to 56 deals and raise of $757 million in 2018, and 66 deals and $622 million raise in 2017.
  • Financial startups in Southeast Asia (SEA) raised $993 million across 124 rounds in 2019 in what was their best year.

*CB Insights report includes a $666 million financing round of Paytm . It was incorrectly reported by some news outlets and the $666 million raise was part of the $1 billion round the Indian startup had revealed weeks prior. We have adjusted the data accordingly.

Rippling starts billboard battle with Gusto

By Josh Constine

Remember when Zenefits imploded, and kicked out CEO Parker Conrad. Well, Conrad launched a new employee onboarding startup called Rippling, and now he’s going after another HR company called Gusto with a new billboard, “Outgrowing Gusto? Presto change-o.”

The problem is, Gusto got it taken down by issuing a cease & desist order to Rippling and the billboard operator Clear Channel Outdoor. That’s despite the law typically allowing comparative advertising as long as it’s accurate. Gusto sells HR, benefits and payroll software, while Rippling does the same but adds in IT management to tie together an employee identity platform.

Rippling tells me that outgrowing Gusto is the top reasons customers say they’re switching to Rippling. Gusto’s customer stories page lists no customers larger than 61 customers, and Enlyft research says the company is most often used by 10 to 50-person staffs. “We were one of Gusto’s largest customers when we left the platform last year. They were very open about the fact that the product didn’t work for businesses of our size. We moved to Rippling last fall and have been extremely happy with it,” says Compass Coffee co-founder Michael Haft.

That all suggests the Rippling ad’s claim is reasonable. But the C&D claims that “Gusto counts as customers multiple companies with 100 or more employees and does not state the businesses will ‘outgrow’ their platfrom at a certain size.”

In an email to staff provided to TechCrunch, Rippling CMO Matt Epstein wrote, “We take legal claims seriously, but this one doesn’t pass the laugh test. As Gusto says all over their website, they focus on small businesses.”

So rather than taking Gusto to court or trying to change Clear Channel’s mind, Conrad and Rippling did something cheeky. They responded to the cease & desist order in Shakespeare-style iambic pentameter.

Our billboard struck a nerve, it seems. And so you phoned your legal teams,
who started shouting, “Cease!” “Desist!” and other threats too long to list.

Your brand is known for being chill. So this just seems like overkill.
But since you think we’ve been unfair, we’d really like to clear the air.

Rippling’s general counsel Vanessa Wu wrote the letter, which goes on to claim that “When Gusto tried to scale itself, we saw what you took off the shelf. Your software fell a little short. You needed Workday for support,” asserting that Gusto’s own HR tool couldn’t handle its 1,000-plus employees and needed to turn to a bigger enterprise vendor. The letter concludes with the implication that Gusto should drop the cease-and-desist, and instead compete on merit:

So Gusto, do not fear our sign. Our mission and our goals align.
Let’s keep this conflict dignified—and let the customers decide.

Rippling CMO Matt Epstein tells me that “While the folks across the street may find competition upsetting, customers win when companies push each other to do better. We hope our lighthearted poem gets this debate back down to earth, and we look forward to competing in the marketplace.”

Rippling might think this whole thing was slick or funny, but it comes off a bit lame and try-hard. These are far from 8 Mile-worthy battle rhymes. If it really wanted to let customers decide, it could have just accepted the C&D and moved on…or not run the billboard at all. It still has four others that don’t slam competitors running. That said, Gusto does look petty trying to block the billboard and hide that it’s unequipped to support massive teams.

We reached out to Gusto over the weekend and again today asking for comment, whether it will drop the C&D, if it’s trying to get Rippling’s bus ads dropped too and if it does in fact use Workday internally.

Given Gusto has raised $516 million10X what Rippling has — you’d think it could just outspend Rippling on advertising or invest in building the enterprise HR tools so customers really couldn’t outgrow it. They’re both Y Combinator companies with Kleiner Perkins as a major investor (conflict of interest?), so perhaps they can still bury the hatchet.

At least they found a way to make the HR industry interesting for an afternoon.

Payments infra startup Finix closes $35M Series B led by Sequoia

By Alex Wilhelm

This morning Finix, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) startup selling payments tech to other businesses, announced that it has raised a $35 million Series B. Sequoia led the round, which also saw participation from new investors Activant Capital and Inspired Capital.

Finix did not disclose a new valuation as part of its round, and declined to share any growth metrics regarding its business. Instead, it offered a TAM figure and noted the number of countries in which it currently operates.

The company’s latest round is a doubling of its Series A, a $17.5 million round from July of 2019 led by Bain Capital Ventures; Insight Venture Partners, Aspect Ventures and Visa also took part in that round. Adding to the list, Homebrew invested in the company during its infancy.

Finix has now raised more than $55 million to date, according to the company, inclusive of an October, 2017-era seed investment.

The round

In an interview, Finix’s Richie Serna told TechCrunch that his company put together its latest round “to scale up the organization,” boosting its product and engineering muscles while also pursuing further international payment support. According to Serna, Finix’s larger clients have asked the company to expand international support, as having “international reach is a really key component for any business.”

Internationalization in the payments space requires many hands, a need that Finix intends to meet by doubling its staff by the end of the year. The company had around 60 staff at year’s end, Serna previously told TechCrunch.

Notably Finix, despite being a player in the payments space, doesn’t think of itself as a payments company. Instead, according to its CEO, Finix self-describes “as a payment infrastructure company.”

That difference is reflected in how the company charges for its service. Instead of charging similarly to, say, Stripe, which takes 2.9% and $0.30 “per successful card charge,” Finix charges its customers a regular software fee, along with a sliding fee depending on the number of payments they process.

Not taking a percentage cut of transactions opens up interesting revenue opportunities for Finix customers. Serna detailed how bringing payment tech via Finix can help some companies grow top line, something that’s quite interesting for other SaaS players:

Historically the distribution of payments has been fairly fragmented and almost bolted on. So there’s a number of software companies like MindBody and Toast, who, historically would just have sort of a revenue share with one of their payment processors. So if you signed up for someone like a MindBody as a yoga studio, you would then go and set up a partnership with FirstData or WorldPay to start accepting payments on that platform. In that model, someone like a MindBody would make a few basis points on every single transaction. By bringing their payments back in-house, and offering a more comprehensive, all in one solution, they can actually take more revenue.

Startups can expand revenue by owning their own payments tech — sometimes substantially. Serna told TechCrunch that Lightspeed said during their IPO process that “they were actually doubling their overall take rate by becoming a payment company.”

How does that work?

The yoga example that Serna mentioned is easy to unpack by way of analogy. Doing so will help us better understand why Finix expects SaaS companies, to pick an example, to bring payment tech “in-house.”

Imagine you own a company called, say WeaveBasket, and that it sells SaaS software to underwater basket weaving instructional studios, helping them manage client booking and the like. You can charge only so much for company’s your software, presenting you with a revenue ceiling; after all, the average underwater basket weaving studio can only generate so much margin with which to pay costs. But if you set up WeaveBasket to help underwater basket weaving studios to also accept payments for classes through your software, you can generate lots more revenue for your SaaS company — WeaveBasket generates revenue from regular software fees, and by taking a cut of its customers’ customer payment flow.

“Vertical SaaS companies are looking at how they can directly embed and bake these payments capabilities into their platform,” Serna told TechCrunch.

All this fits back into the round; Finix is a bet that providing payment technology on a SaaS basis will attract legion uptake by companies of all sorts. As a deck that Finix’s Serna showed TechCrunch a few weeks ago stated, “software companies are becoming payments companies,” and his company wants to be the engine behind that change.

The bet

The payments world is stuffed full of players at different points of the transaction stack, including processors, banks, card networks and payment facilitators like Lightspeed and Stripe. It’s a complex set of relationships. Serna agrees, calling the industry “a blackbox to basically everybody” in a 2019 interview.

Creating simplicity through software is something that has generally done well in the technology world in recent years. Twilio took telephony and boiled it down into APIs. Plaid did the same thing with consumer finance. Finix, it seems, wants to let anyone who takes lots of payments to be able to reduce their relationship load, control costs and perhaps drive more revenue.

The startup now has the capital with which to bring its vision more fully to life, but domestically and abroad. Let’s see how far Finix can get on its new check — and its willingness to take a small risk and share a bit more concerning its business performance in the future.

How Bykea is winning Pakistan’s ride-hailing and delivery market

By Manish Singh

Increasingly, the streets of Karachi and Lahore are being flooded with men riding bikes and wearing green T-shirts, a writer friend recently told me. In a sense, these men represent the emergence of Pakistan’s tech startups.

India now has more than 25,000 startups and raised a record $14.5 billion last year, according to government figures. But not all Asian countries are as large as India or have such a thriving startup ecosystem. Long overdue, things are beginning to change in bordering Pakistan.

Bykea, a three-year-old ride-hailing and delivery service, today has more than 500,000 bikes registered on its platform. It operates in some of Pakistan’s most populated cities, such as Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, Muneeb Maayr, Bykea founder and CEO, told TechCrunch.

Maayr is one of the most recognized startup founders in Pakistan, and previously worked for Rocket Internet, helping the giant run fashion e-commerce platform Daraz in the country. While leading Daraz, he expanded the platform to cater to categories beyond fashion; Daraz was later sold to Alibaba.

Apple Card users can now download monthly transactions in a spreadsheet

By Matthew Panzarino

One of the big questions I got around the time the Apple Card launched was whether you’d be able to download a file of your transactions to either work with manually or import into a piece of expenses management software. The answer, at the time, was no.

Now Apple is announcing that Apple Card users will be able to export monthly transactions to a downloadable spreadsheet that they can use with their personal budgeting apps or sheets.

When I shot out a request for recommendations for a Mint replacement for my financing and budgeting, a lot of the responses showed just how spreadsheet-oriented many of the tools on the market are. Mint accepts imports, as do others like Clarity Money, YNAB and Lunch Money. As do, of course, personal solutions rolled in Google Sheets or other spreadsheet programs.

The one rec I got the most and which I’m trying out right now, Copilot, does not currently support importing spreadsheets, but founder Andres Ugarte told me it’s on their list to add. Ugarte told me that they’re happy to see the download feature appear because it lets users monitor their finances on their own terms. “Apple Card support has been a top request from our users, so we are very excited to provide a way for them to import their data into Copilot .”

Here’s how to export a spreadsheet of your monthly transactions:

  • Open Wallet
  • Tap “Apple Card”
  • Tap “Card Balance”
  • Tap on one of the monthly statements
  • Tap on “Export Transactions”

If you don’t yet have a monthly statement, you won’t see this feature until you do. The last step brings up a standard share sheet letting you email or send the file however you normally would. The current format is CSV, but in the near future you’ll get an OFX option as well.

So if you’re using one of the tools (or spreadsheet setups) that would benefit from being able to download a monthly statement of your Apple Card transactions, then you’re getting your wish from the Apple Card team today. If you use a tool that requires something more along the lines of API-level access, like something using Plaid or another account linking-centric tool, then you’re going to have to wait longer.

No info from Apple on when that will arrive, if at all, but I know that the team is continuing to launch new features, so my guess is that this is coming at some point.

Venmo woos retailers with branded, animated stickers for its newsfeed

By Sarah Perez

Venmo’s newsfeed is about to get more interesting. Historically, the PayPal-owned app’s users would comment on their transactions using text, or as is more common, emoji. But now the company is planning to add support for custom, animated stickers, as well.

These animations were designed in partnership with Holler so they’re unique to the Venmo app and tailored to the sorts of transactions that take place there. For example, one is of a hoagie sandwich broken in half with text that reads “split the bill.” Another features a spinning pizza. One includes two characters pushing an IKEA shopping cart. And so on.

IKEA isn’t the only brand to be included in the new stickers, as it turns out — Subway and others are also participating, Venmo says. (Keurig was initially listed as a sticker partner, then pulled out at the last minute. Other news sites have still included the brand’s mention, but to be clear — it isn’t launching now.)

The move to introduce stickers — and particularly those featuring select retailers — comes at a time when Venmo is looking for ways to establish itself as a payment method of choice at brick-and-mortar stores. On that front, the company this past fall launched a rewards program tied to its physical Venmo card to offer users 5% back at stores like Target, Sephora, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Wendy’s, among others.

Though Venmo parent company PayPal had already tried to establish itself as an optional at checkout through point-of-sale integrations in years past, it never really took off. In more recent months, PayPal instead chose to partner instead of competing with payment rivals like Apple, Google, Visa, Mastercard, and others. Venmo, however, still has a shot at becoming at establishing a foothold in the physical retail space, thanks to its Venmo account-linked card and its forthcoming credit card.

In addition, its service is favored by millennial and Gen Z shoppers who often opt for non-traditional cards and banking products, like mobile banking apps and cards that also function as status symbol cards, like the new  Apple Card. Plus, they prefer visual communication when it comes to sharing what they’re spending — over 90% of Venmo transactions include emojis, the company notes.

Venmo says the new stickers in the app will help the retailers to better connect with Venmo users and could allow for tailored experiences, going forward. But not all the stickers are branded — some are just happy tacos or burritos, jars and mugs filled with pennies, and other generic images.

The stickers are rolling out, starting today, says Venmo.

African fintech firm Flutterwave raises $35M, partners with Worldpay

By Jake Bright

San Francisco and Lagos-based fintech startup Flutterwave has raised a $35 million Series B round and announced a partnership with Worldpay FIS for payments in Africa.

With the funding, Flutterwave will invest in technology and business development to grow market share in existing operating countries, CEO Olugbenga Agboola — aka GB — told TechCrunch.

The company will also expand capabilities to offer more services around its payment products.

More than payments

“We don’t just want to be a payment technology company, we have sector expertise around education, travel, gaming, e-commerce, fintech companies. They all use our expertise,” said GB.

That means Flutterwave will provide more solutions around the broader needs of its clients.

The Nigerian-founded startup’s main business is providing B2B payments services for companies operating in Africa to pay other companies on the continent and abroad.

Launched in 2016, Flutterwave allows clients to tap its APIs and work with Flutterwave developers to customize payments applications. Existing customers include Uber, Booking.com and e-commerce company Jumia.

In 2019, Flutterwave processed 107 million transactions worth $5.4 billion, according to company data.

Flutterwave did the payment integration for U.S. pop-star Cardi B’s 2019 performances in Nigeria and Ghana. Those are two of the countries in which the startup operates, in addition to South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, the U.K. and Rwanda.

Flutterwave Cardi B Nigeria“We want to scale in all those markets and be the payment processor of choice,” GB said.

The company will hire more business development staff and expand its developer team to create more sector expertise, according to GB.

“Our business goes beyond payments. People don’t want to just make payments, they want to do something,” he said. And Fluterwave aims to offer more capabilities toward what those clients want to do in Africa.

GB Flutterwave disrupt

Olugbenga Agboola, aka GB

“If you are a charity that wants to raise money for cancer research in Ghana, or you want to sell online, or you’re Cardi B…who wants to do concerts in Africa…we want to be able to set up payments, write the code and create the platform for those needs,” GB explained.

That also means Flutterwave, which built its early client base across global companies, aims to serve smaller African businesses, including startups. Current customers include African-founded tech companies, such as moto ride-hail venture Max.ng.

Worldpay partnership

The new round makes Flutterwave the payment provider for Worldpay in Africa.

“With this partnership, any Worldpay merchant in Europe or the U.S. can accept any African payment. If someone goes to pay Netflix with an African card, it just works,” GB said.

In 2019, Worldpay was acquired for a reported $35 billion by FIS, a U.S. financial services provider. At the time of the purchase, it was projected the two companies would generate revenues of $12 billion annually, yet neither has notable presence in Africa.

Therein lies the benefit of collaborating with Flutterwave.

FIS’s Head of Ventures Joon Cho confirmed the partnership with TechCrunch. FIS also backed Flutterwave’s $35 million Series B. US VC firms Greycroft and eVentures led the round, with participation of Visa, Green Visor and African fund CRE Venture Capital.

Flutterwave’s latest funding brings the company’s total investment to $55 million and follows a year in which the fintech venture announced a series of weighty partnerships.

In July 2019, the startup joined forces with Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba’s Alipay to offer digital payments between Africa and China.

The Alipay collaboration followed one between Flutterwave and Visa to launch a consumer payment product for Africa, called GetBarter.

Flutterwave and African fintech

Flutterwave’s $35 million round and latest partnership are among the reasons the startup has become a standout in Africa’s digital-finance landscape.

As a sector, fintech gains the bulk of dealflow and the majority of startup capital flowing to African startups annually. VC to Africa totaled $1.35 billion in 2019, according to WeeTracker’s latest stats.

While a number of payment startups and products have scaled — see Paga in Nigeria and M-Pesa in Kenya — the majority of the continent’s fintech companies are P2P in focus and segregated to one or two markets.

Flutterwave’s platform has served the increased B2B business payment needs spurred by the decade of growth and reform that has occurred in Africa’s core economies.

The value the startup has created is underscored not just by transactional volume the company generates, but the partnerships it has attracted.

A growing list of the masters of the payment universe — Visa, Alipay, Worldpay — have shown they need Flutterwave to do finance in Africa.

Marijuana delivery giant Eaze may go up in smoke

By Ingrid Lunden

The first cannabis startup to raise big money in Silicon Valley is in danger of burning out. TechCrunch has learned that pot delivery middleman Eaze has seen unannounced layoffs, and its depleted cash reserves threaten its ability to make payroll or settle its AWS bill. Eaze was forced to raise a bridge round to keep the lights on as it prepares to attempt major pivot to ‘touching the plant’ by selling its own marijuana brands through its own depots.

If Eaze fails, it could highlight serious growing pains amid the ‘green rush’ of startups into the marijuana business.

Eaze, the startup backed by some $166 million in funding that once positioned itself as the “Uber of pot” — a marketplace selling pot and other cannabis products from dispensaries and delivering it to customers — has recently closed a $15 million bridge round, according to multiple source. The fund was meant to keep the lights on as Eaze struggles to raise its next round of funding amid problems with making decent margins on its current business model, lawsuits, payment processing issues, and internal disorganization.

 

An Eaze spokesperson confirmed that the company is low on cash. Sources tell us that the company, which laid off some 30 people last summer, is preparing another round of cuts in the meantime. The spokesperson refused to discuss personnel issues but noted that there have been layoffs at many late stage startups as investors want to see companies cut costs and become more efficient.

From what we understand, Eaze is currently trying to raise a $35 million Series D round according to its pitch deck. The $15 million bridge round came from unnamed current investors. (Previous backers of the company include 500 Startups, DCM Ventures, Slow Ventures, Great Oaks, FJ Labs, the Winklevoss brothers, and a number of others.) Originally, Eaze had tried to raise a $50 million Series D, but the investor that was looking at the deal, Athos Capital, is said to have walked away at the eleventh hour.

Eaze is going into the fundraising with an enterprise value of $388 million, according to company documents reviewed by TechCrunch. It’s not clear what valuation it’s aiming for in the next round.

An Eaze spokesperson declined to discuss fundraising efforts but told TechCrunch, “The company is going through a very important transition right now, moving to becoming a plant-touching company through acquisitions of former retail partners that will hopefully allow us to more efficiently run the business and continue to provide good service to customers.

Desperate to grow margins

The news comes as Eaze is hoping to pull off a “verticalization” pivot, moving beyond online storefront and delivery of third-party products (rolled joints, flower, vaping products and edibles) and into sourcing, branding and dispensing the product directly. Instead of just moving other company’s marijuana brands between third-party dispensaries and customers, it wants to sell its own in-house brands through its own delivery depots to earn a higher margin. With a number of other cannabis companies struggling, the hope is that it will be able to acquire brands in areas like marijuana flower, pre-rolled joints, vaporizer cartridges, or edibles at low prices.

An Eaze spokesperson confirmed that the company plans to announce the pivot in the coming days, telling TechCrunch that it’s “a pretty significant change from provider of services to operating in that fashion but also operating a depot directly ourselves.”

The startup is already making moves in this direction, and is in the process of acquiring some of the assets of a bankrupt cannabis business out of Canada called Dionymed — which had initially been a partner of Eaze’s, then became a competitor, and then sued it over payment disputes, before finally selling part of its business. These assets are said to include Oakland dispensary Hometown Heart, which it acquired in an all-share transaction (“Eaze effectively bought the lawsuit,” is how one source described the sale). This will become Eaze’s first owned delivery depot.

In a recent presentation deck that Eaze has been using when pitching to investors — which has been obtained by TechCrunch — the company describes itself as the largest direct-to-consumer cannabis retailer in California. It has completed more than 5 million deliveries, served 600,000 customers and tallied up an average transaction value of $85. 

To date, Eaze has only expanded to one other state beyond California, Oregon. Its aim is to add five more states this year, and another three in 2021. But the company appears to have expected more states to legalize recreational marijuana sooner, which would have provided geographic expansion. Eaze seems to have overextended itself too early in hopes of capturing market share as soon as it became available.

An employee at the company tells us that on a good day Eaze can bring in between $800,000 and $1 million in net revenue, which sounds great, except that this is total merchandise value, before any cuts to suppliers and others are made. Eaze makes only a fraction of that amount, one reason why it’s now looking to verticatlize into more of a primary role in the ecosystem. And that’s before considering all of the costs associated with running the business. 

Eaze is suffering from a problem rampant in the marijuana industry: a lack of working capital. Since banks often won’t issue working capital loans to weed-related business, deliverers like Eaze can experience delays in paying back vendors. A source says late payments have pushed some brands to stop selling through Eaze.

Another drain on its finances have been its marketing efforts. A source said out-of-home ads (billboards and the like) allegedly were a significant expense at one point. It has to compete with other pot purchasing options like visiting retail stores in person, using dispensaries’ in-house delivery services, or buying via startups like Meadow that act as aggregated online points of sale for multiple dispensaries.

Indeed, Eaze claims that its pivot into verticalization will bring it $204 million in revenues on gross transactions of $300 million. It notes in the presentation that it makes $9.04 on an average sale of $85, which will go up to $18.31 if it successfully brings in ‘private label’ products and has more depot control.

Selling weed isn’t eazy

The poor margins are only one of the problems with Eaze’s current business model, which the company admits in its presentation have led to an inconsistent customer experience and poor customer affinity with its brand — especially in the face of competition from a number of other delivery businesses.  

Playing on the on-demand, delivery-of-everything theme, it connected with two customer bases. First, existing cannabis consumers already using some form of delivery service for their supply; and a newer, more mainstream audience with disposable income that had become more interested in cannabis-related products but might feel less comfortable walking into a dispensary, or buying from a black market dealer.

It is not the only startup that has been chasing that audience. Other competitors in the wider market for cannabis discovery, distribution and sales include Weedmaps, Puffy, Blackbird, Chill (a brand from Dionymed that it founded after ending its earlier relationship with Eaze), and Meadow, with the wider industry estimated to be worth some $11.9 billion in 2018 and projected to grow to $63 billion by 2025.

Eaze was founded on the premise that the gradual decriminalisation of pot — first making it legal to buy for medicinal use, and gradually for recreational use — would spread across the US and make the consumption of cannabis-related products much more ubiquitous, presenting a big opportunity for Eaze and other startups like it. 

It found a willing audience among consumers, but also tech workers in the Bay Area, a tight market for recruitment. 

“I was excited for the opportunity to join the cannabis industry,” one source said. “It has for the most part has gotten a bad rap, and I saw Eaze’s mission as a noble thing, and the team seemed like good people.”

Eaze CEO Ro Choy

That impression was not to last. The company, this employee was told when joining, had plenty of funding with more on the way. The newer funding never materialised, and as Eaze sought to figure out the best way forward, the company cycled through different ideas and leadership: former Yammer executive Keith McCarty, who cofounded the company with Roie Edery (both are now founders at another Cannabis startup, Wayv), left, and the CEO role was given to another ex-Yammer executive, Jim Patterson, who was then replaced by Ro Choy, who is the current CEO. 

“I personally lost trust in the ability to execute on some of the vision once I got there,” the ex-employee said. “I thought that on one hand a picture was painted that wasn’t the truth. As we got closer and as I’d been there longer and we had issues with funding, the story around why we were having issues kept changing.” Several sources familiar with its business performance and culture referred to Eaze as a “shitshow”.

No ‘Push For Kush’

The quick shifts in strategy were a recurring pattern that started well before the company got tight financial straits. 

One employee recalled an acquisition Eaze made several years ago of a startup called Push for Pizza. Founded by five young friends in Brooklyn, Push for Pizza had gone viral over a simple concept: you set up your favourite pizza order in the app, and when you want it, you pushed a single button to order it. (Does that sound silly? Don’t forget, this was also the era of Yo, which was either a low point for innovation, or a high point for cynicism when it came to average consumer intelligence… maybe both.)

Eaze’s idea, the employee said, was to take the basics of Push for Pizza and turn it into a weed app, Push for Kush. In it, customers could craft their favourite mix and, at the touch of a button, order it, lowering the procurement barrier even more.

The company was very excited about the deal and the prospect of the new app. They planned a big campaign to spread the word, and held an internal event to excite staff about the new app and business line. 

“They had even made a movie of some kind that they showed us, featuring a caricature of Jim” — the CEO at a the time — “hanging out of the sunroof of a limo.” (I’ve been able to find the opening segment of this video online, and the Twitter and Instagram accounts that had been created for Push for Kush, but no more than that.)

Then just one week later, the whole plan was scrapped, and the founders of Push for Pizza fired. “It was just brushed under the carpet,” the former employee said. “No one could get anything out of management about what had happened.”

Something had happened, though: the company had been taking payments by card when it made the acquisition, but the process was never stable and by then it had recently gone back to the cash-only model. Push for Kush by cash was less appealing. “They didn’t think it would work,” the person said, adding that this was the normal course of business at the startup. “Big initiatives would just die in favor of pushing out whatever new thing was on the product team’s radar.” 

Eaze’s spokesperson confirmed that “we did acquire Push For Pizza . . but ultimately didn’t choose to pursue [launching Push For Kush].”

Payments were a recurring issue for the startup. Eaze started out taking payments only in cash — but as the business grew, that became increasingly problematic. The company found itself kicked off the credit card networks and was stuck with a less traceable, more open to error (and theft) cash-only model at a time when one employee estimated it was bringing in between $800,000 and $1 million per day in sales. 

Eventually, it moved to cards, but not smoothly: Visa specifically did not want Eaze on its platform. Eaze found a workaround, employees say, but it was never above board, which became the subject of the lawsuit between Eaze and Dionymed. Currently the company appear to only take payments via debit cards, ACH transfer, and cash, not credit card.

Another incident sheds light on how the company viewed and handled security issues. 

Can Eaze rise from the ashes?

At one point, employees allegedly discovered that Eaze was essentially storing all of its customer data — including users’ signatures and other personal information — in an Azure bucket that was not secured, meaning that if anyone was nosing around, it could be easily discovered and exploited.

The vulnerability was brought to the company’s attention. It was something that was up to product to fix, but the job was pushed down the list. It ultimately took seven months to patch this up. “I just kept seeing things with all these huge holes in them, just not ready for prime time,” one ex-employee said of the state of products. “No one was listening to engineers, and no one seemed to be looking for viable products.” Eaze’s spokesperson confirms a vulnerability was discovered but claims it was promptly resolved.

Today, the issue is a more pressing financial one: the company is running out of money. Employees have been told the company may not make its next payroll, and AWS will shut down its servers in two days if it doesn’t pay up. 

Eaze’s spokesperson tried to remain optimistic while admitting the dire situation the company faces. “Eaze is going to continue doing everything we can to support customers and the overall legal cannabis industry. We’re excited about the future and acknowledge the challenges that the entire community is facing.”

As medicinal and recreational marijuana access became legal in some states in the latter 2010s, entrepreneurs and investors flocked to the market. They saw an opportunity to capitalize on the end of a major prohibition — a once in a lifetime event. But high government taxes, enduring black markets, intense competition, and a lack of financial infrastructure willing to deal with any legal haziness have caused major setbacks.

While the pot business might sound chill, operations like Eaze depend on coordinating high-stress logistics with thin margins and little room for error. Plenty of food delivery startups from Sprig to Munchery went under after running into similar struggles, and at least banks and payment processors would work with them. With the odds stacked against it, Eaze has a tough road ahead.

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