Netflix to test free weekend-long access in India

Netflix plans to give users in India access to its service at no charge for a weekend as part of a test to expand its reach in the country, a top company executive said Tuesday.

The American streaming giant, which reported slow users growth for the quarter that ended in September, recently stopped offering a first-month complimentary access to new users in the U.S. But the company plans to keep experimenting with new ways to lure potential customers, said Greg Peters, COO and Chief Product Officer at Netflix on the company’s earnings call.

One of those new ways is giving away access to Netflix at no charge to customers for a weekend in different markets, he said. The company has picked India as the first market where it will test this idea and “will see how that goes,” from there, he said.

“We think that giving away everyone in a country access to Netflix for free for a weekend could be a great way to expose a bunch of new people to the amazing stories that we have, the service and how it works … and hopefully get a bunch of those folks to sign up,” he said.

This won’t be the first time Netflix uses India as a test bed to explore new ideas. The company first flirted with the idea of a $2.7 mobile-only monthly plan in New Delhi before introducing it as a permanent tier in the country last year and then nearly a dozen markets. It has since tested even more pricing plans in the country.

India emerged as the largest open battleground for Silicon Valley and Chinese firms searching for their next billion users in the past decade. Amazon, Google, Apple, Spotify and several other firms offer a range of their services at a much lower price in India.

More to follow…

ShopUp raises $22.5 million to digitize millions of mom-and-pop shops in Bangladesh

A startup that is aiming to digitize millions of neighborhood stores in Bangladesh just raised the country’s largest Series A financing round.

Dhaka-headquartered ShopUp said on Tuesday it has raised $22.5 million in a round co-led by Sequoia Capital India and Flourish Ventures. For both the venture firms, this is the first time they are backing a Bangladeshi startup. Veon Ventures, Speedinvest, and Lonsdale Capital also participated in the four-year-old ShopUp’s Series A financing round. ShopUp has raised about $28 million to date.

Like its neighboring nation, India, more than 95% of all retail in Bangladesh goes through neighborhood stores in the country. There are about 4.5 million such mom-and-pop stores in the country and the vast majority of them have no digital presence.

ShopUp is attempting to change that. It has built what it calls a full-stack business-to-business commerce platform. It provides three core services to neighborhood stores: a wholesale marketplace to secure inventory, logistics (including last mile delivery to customers), and working capital, explained Afeef Zaman, co-founder and chief executive of ShopUp​, in an interview with TechCrunch.

Image Credits: ShopUp

These small shops are facing a number of challenges. They are not getting inventory on time or enough inventory and they are paying more than what they should, said Zaman. And for these businesses, more than 73% (PDF) of all their sales rely on credit instead of cash or digital payments, creating a massive liquidity crunch. So most of these businesses are in dire need of working capital.

Zaman declined to reveal how many mom-and-pop shops today use ShopUp, but claimed that the platform assumes a clear lead in its category in the country. That lead has widened amid the global pandemic as more physical shops explore digital offerings to stay afloat, he said.

The number of neighborhood shops transacting weekly on the ShopUp platform grew by 8.5 times between April and August this year, he said. The pandemic also helped ShopUp engage with e-commerce players to deliver items for them.

“Sequoia India has been a strong supporter of the company since it was part of the first Surge cohort in early 2019 and it’s been exciting to see the company become a trailblazer facilitating digital transformation in Bangladesh,” said ​Klaus Wang, VP, Sequoia Capital, in a statement.

The startup has no intention to become an e-commerce platform like Amazon that directly engages with consumers, Zaman said. E-commerce is still in its nascent stage in Bangladesh. Amazon has yet to enter the country and increasingly Facebook is filling that role.

ShopUp sees immense opportunity in serving neighborhood stores, he said. The startup plans to deploy the fresh capital to deepen its partnerships with manufacturers and expand its tech infrastructure.

It opened an office in Bengaluru earlier this year to hire local tech talent in the nation. Indian e-commerce platform Voonik merged with ShopUp this year and both of its co-founders have joined the Bangladeshi startup. Zaman said the startup will hire more engineering talent in India.

SAIF Partners rebrands as Elevation Capital, secures $400 million for its new India fund

SAIF Partners has raised $400 million for a new fund and rebranded the 18-year-old influential venture capital firm as it looks to back more early-stage startups in the world’s second largest internet market.

The new fund is SAIF Partners’ seventh for early-stage startups in India. Its previous two funds were each $350 million in size, and the firm today manages more than $2 billion in assets.

SAIF Partners started investing in Indian startups 18 years ago. The firm began as a joint venture with SoftBank and its first high-profile investment was Sify. But the two firms’ joint venture ended more than a decade ago, so the firm is now getting around to rebranding itself, Ravi Adusumalli, the managing partner of SAIF Partners, told TechCrunch in an interview.

The firm — which has five unicorns in its portfolio, including Paytm’s parent firm One97 Communications, food delivery startup Swiggy and online learning platform Unacademy — is rebranding itself as Elevation Capital.

“Elevation reflects our investment ethos and re-emphasises our commitment to the founders who help redefine our future. For our existing partners, it is a commitment of continued collaboration on our path-breaking journeys together. For our new partners, it is a promise to do all we can to achieve great heights together, from day one,” said Adusumalli.

SAIF Partners has backed more than 100 startups to date. The venture firm makes long-term bets on founders and backs young firms beginning their early years when they are raising their seed, pre-Series A and Series A financing rounds.

The venture firm invests in startups operating in a wide-range of sectors and plans to continue this strategy and add more areas of interest, said Deepak Gaur, a managing director at Elevation Capital, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“Enterprise SaaS is one area where we are spending a lot of resources,” he said. “We believe the time has come for this sector and we will see many global companies emerge from India.”

More than 15 startups in Elevation Capital’s portfolio are projected to become a unicorn in the next few years, according to Tracxn, a firm that tracks startups and investments in India. These include healthcare booking platform PharmEasy, app-based platform to book home services Urban Company, insurance tech startup Acko, digital loan platform Capital Float, real estate property marketplace NoBroker and online marketplace for gold Rupeek.

A number of SAIF Partners-backed startups, including IndiaMART, MakeMyTrip and Justdial, have become publicly listed companies, too.

Mukul Arora, a managing partner at SAIF Partners, said that the state of the Indian startup ecosystem has changed for the better in the past decade. “A few years ago, we were seeing many startups replicate a foreign company’s play in India. Today, we are seeing our ideas being replicated outside of the country. Someone is building a Meesho for Brazil,” he said.

The founders have also grown more sophisticated, said Mayank Khanduja. Elevation Capital has over three dozen employees, with about two-dozen focused on the investment size.

Elevation Capital’s new fund comes at a time when many established venture capital firms have also closed their new funds for India in recent months. In July, Sequoia Capital announced two funds — totaling $1.35 billion in size — for India. A month later, Lightspeed raised $275 million for its third Indian fund. Accel late last year closed its sixth fund in India at $550 million.

All of the LPs participating in Elevation Capital’s new fund, as was the case with previous funds, are U.S.-based, and the vast majority of them are nonprofits, said Adusumalli. Without disclosing any figures, he said the firm’s previous funds have performed very well.

Pakistan lifts ban on TikTok

Pakistan Telecommunication Authority said on Monday it has lifted the ban on TikTok, 11 days after the South Asian nation’s telecom authority blocked the popular short video app in the country over problematic videos on the platform. The authority, however, warned that TikTok needs to actively moderate content on its app or else it will be permanently blocked in the nation.

The telecom authority said it was lifting the ban after engaging with TikTok’s senior management, which assured it would moderate content in accordance with “societal norms and the laws of Pakistan.” TikTok has about 20 million monthly active users in Pakistan, the authority said.

TikTok’s senior management team has also ensured that it will block users who show a repeated pattern of uploading “unlawful” content, the telecom authority said in a statement.

“The restoration of TikTok is strictly subject to the condition that the platform will not be used for the spread of vulgarity/indecent content & societal values will not be abused. PTA will be constrained to permanently block the application incase said condition is not fulfilled,” the authority warned.

Pakistan banned TikTok in the nation earlier this month and also after issuing a “final” warning to the app in July. In its warning, Pakistan had expressed serious concerns over some videos that were circulating on the platform. The nation said some videos were “immoral,” “obscene” and “vulgar.”

After the ban, TikTok had assured that it would work harder to moderate content and also offered to invest in the country if the ban were to be lifted.

The ban had also raised concerns with some (via Techmeme), who cautioned that the move was Pakistan’s attempt to enforce a top down censorship in the nation. Earlier this year, Pakistan unveiled some of the world’s most sweeping rules on internet censorship that would have severely impacted American tech firms operating in the nation. But it later retreated the rules after Facebook, Google and Twitter among other firms threatened to leave the nation.

Neighboring nation India has also banned TikTok, among hundreds of other Chinese apps. In case of India, the ban has been enforced over cybersecurity concerns. Prior to the ban, India was TikTok’s biggest market by users outside of China.

OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei confirms he has left the company

OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei has left the company, he confirmed on Friday. Pei, 31, said he plans to take some time off before pursuing his next step. “After nearly 7 years at OnePlus, I’ve made the difficult decision to say goodbye,” wrote Pei in a post on the OnePlus forum.

TechCrunch reported earlier this week that Pei was leaving the company to start a new venture. Pei, who co-founded OnePlus in late 2013 with Pete Lau, has been the public face of the company ever since. He played an instrumental role in designing the OnePlus smartphone lineup over the years, and also how the company marketed them and itself.

“The world didn’t need another smartphone brand in 2013. But we saw ways of doing things better and dreamt of shaking things up. Better products. Built hand in hand with our users. At more reasonable prices. Fast forward to today, and OnePlus is a strong force to be reckoned when it comes to flagship smartphones. And the new Nord product line, this success will continue into new market segments,” Pei wrote in the post.

Pei’s departure comes in the same week as OnePlus launched its new flagship smartphone, the OnePlus 8T. TechCrunch reached out to OnePlus for comment on Monday and has yet to hear back.

News outlet Android Central speculated earlier this week that Pei was leaving the firm possibly because of an alleged “internal power struggle” between him and Lau, 45. Lau took an additional role of SVP at Oppo. BBK Group owns OnePlus, Realme, Oppo and Vivo. OnePlus has always avoided questions about its ownership structure.

“I am eternally grateful to Pete for taking a chance in this kid without a college degree, with nothing to his name but a dream. The trust, mentorship, and camaraderie will never be forgotten. Thanks for the opportunity of a lifetime,” Pei wrote.

Pei said he was leaving the company because OnePlus had been his singular focus for the last seven years. “I’ve never regretted trusting my gut feeling, and this time it’s no different. These past years, OnePlus has been my singular focus, and everything else has had to take a backseat. I’m looking forward to taking some time off to decompress and catch up with my family and friends,” he wrote. “And then follow my heart on to what’s next.”

Uber is hiring hundreds of engineers in India to cut costs

Uber said on Thursday it is working to hire 225 engineers in India, strengthening its tech team in the key overseas market months after it eliminated thousands of jobs globally.

The ride-hailing firm, which competes with Ola in India, said today it has hired Manikandan Thangarathnam, who spent nearly 13 years as a director of engineering at Amazon, to lead the company’s rider and platform engineering teams in Bangalore. (Last month, Uber announced it would hire 140 engineers in India. Today it said it was in the process of hiring an additional 85 engineers.)

The move comes as several high-profile engineers have left Uber India in recent months to join Google and Amazon among other tech giants. A senior engineer, who recently left Uber, told TechCrunch that many of his peers had lost confidence in Uber’s future prospects in the country.

Uber said its tech expansion plans in India were in line with its vision to make mobility and delivery “more accessible” and becoming the “backbone” of transportation in thousands of cities across the globe.

The company recently also hired Jayaram Valliyur as a senior director to lead its global finance technology team. Prior to this role, Jayaram, too, worked at Amazon, where he spent 14 years.

In July, news outlet The Information described Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi’s plan to move engineering roles to India as a cost saving measure. The report said Khosrowshahi’s plan had sparked internal debates.

Thuan Pham, Uber’s longtime chief technology officer, who left the company earlier this year, reportedly cautioned that hiring more engineers so quickly in India would “require accepting lower-quality candidates.”

Uber and Ola both claim to be the No. 1 ride-hailing service in India. But Rajeev Misra, the chief of SoftBank Vision Fund which is a common investor in both the companies, said last month that Ola maintained a “small lead” over Uber in India.

WarnerMedia to discontinue HBO and WB TV channels in India, and select other South Asia markets

WarnerMedia will discontinue HBO and WB TV channels in India, Pakistan, Maldives, and Bangladesh later this year as the entertainment conglomerate struggles to find a sustainable business model in South Asian despite operating in the region for over a decade.

The company said it will end HBO and WB TV channels in the aforementioned markets, where a cable subscription costs about $4 to $5 a month, on December 15. In India, for instance, it costs less than 25 cents to subscribe to both HBO (in HD) and WB atop a monthly cable plan, which costs about $2.

While HBO is a household name in the U.S. and several other developed markets, in India and other South Asian nations, its audience size remains tiny. Times Internet’s Movies Now, Star Movies, and Sony Pix had a considerably larger viewership than HBO in India last month, according to Broadcast Audience Research Council, India’s ratings agency.

Warner Media cited a dramatic market shift in the pay-TV industry for its decision. It said it will continue to offer Cartoon Network and Pogo in India, and distribute CNN International in the country.

“After 20 years of successes for the HBO linear movie channel in South Asia and more than a decade with the WB linear movie channel, this was a difficult decision to make. The pay-TV industry landscape and the market dynamics have shifted dramatically, and the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for further change,” said Siddharth Jain, SVP and Managing Director of WarnerMedia’s entertainment network in South Asia, in a statement.

HBO also maintains a content syndication partnership with Disney’s Hotstar in India. So the streamer will continue to offer HBO’s shows such as “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” — hopefully without any censorship — in the country.

“WarnerMedia has a strong interest in India and are committed to assessing optimal opportunities to serve valued customers here,” said Jain.

OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei leaves the company to start a new venture

Carl Pei, who co-founded the smartphone giant OnePlus in his 20s, is leaving the company, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

Pei played an instrumental role in designing the OnePlus smartphone lineup over the years, including the recently launched OnePlus Nord, which has been the company’s biggest hit to date. Outside Shenzhen, China, where OnePlus is headquartered, Pei has also been the face of the Chinese firm, appearing at trade conferences, interacting with loyal customers, and giving interviews to the media.

In the early years of OnePlus, Pei devised various marketing strategies for best positioning the company’s products and create a hype about them. In 2014 and 2015, when OnePlus struggled with scaling its inventories, the company sold its phones through invites and several other clever marketing techniques including one in which people were required to destroy their current phones to buy a new OnePlus smartphone.

In the early days of OnePlus, Pei lived almost exclusively in low-cost hotels in China and India to better understand the market and easily travel to new cities. OnePlus is now one of the most successful premium smartphone makers in India and several other markets.

“We did’t have proper product management. What we lacked in experience, we made up in hours,” he said in an earlier interview. He talked more about the company’s early days and the state of the smartphone market at Disrupt 2019.

Once he publicly asked Samsung to hire him so that he could learn more about overseeing operations and logistics. “So, Samsung, today I have a proposal for you: let me be your intern. Seriously. I would be honored to learn from your team about how you’ve been able to scale, run, and manage your business so successfully,” he wrote on his personal blog.

Pei reached out to Pete Lau in 2012 through social media. The two started OnePlus a year later. “He said, ‘I want to change the world.’ I thought this kid has ambitious thoughts and dreams. I think it comes from the heart and it’s very important. I think he has tenacity,” Lau recalled in an interview in 2015.

Years before they started OnePlus, Pei collaborated with a friend and sold whitelabeled MP3 players in China.

Pei, 31, is not joining Samsung, but has clarity on what he wishes to do next. He is starting his own venture and is in talks with investors to raise capital, according to one of the sources who requested anonymity as they are not authorized to speak to the media. Carl did not respond to a request for comment early Monday.

Thailand’s logistics startup Flash Express raises $200 million

Flash Express, a two-year-old logistics startup that works with e-commerce firms in Thailand, said on Monday it has raised $200 million in a new financing round as it looks to double down on a rapidly growing market spurred by demand due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The funding, a Series D, was led by PTT Oil and Retail Business Public Company Limited, the marquee oil and retail businesses of Thai conglomerate PTT. Durbell and Krungsri Finnovate, two other top conglomerates in the Southeast Asian country, also participated in the round, which brings Flash Express’ to-date raise to about $400 million.

Flash Express, which operates door-to-door pickup and delivery service, claims to be the second largest private player to operate in this space. The startup, which also counts Alibaba as an investor, entered the market with delivery fees as low as 60 cents per parcel, a move that allowed it to quickly win a significant market share.

The startup has also expanded aggressively in the past year. Flash Express had about 1,100 delivery points during this time last year. Now it has over 5,000, exceeding those of 138-year-old Thailand Post.

Flash Express currently delivers more than 1 million parcels a day, up from about 50,000 during the same time last year. The startup says it has also invested heavily in technology that has enabled it to handle over 100,000 parcels in a minute by fully automated sorting systems.

Komsan Lee, CEO of Flash Express, said the startup plans to deploy the fresh funds to introduce new services and expand to other Southeast Asian markets (names of which he did not identify). “We are also prepared to create and develop new technologies to achieve even greater delivery and logistics efficiency. More importantly we intend to assist SMEs in lowering their investment costs which we believe will provide long-term benefit for the overall Thai economy in the digital era,” he said.

Retail Business Public Company Limited plans to leverage Flash Express’ logistics network as it looks to meet the rising demand from consumers, said Rajsuda Rangsiyakull, Senior Executive Vice President for Corporate Strategy, Innovation and Sustainability at Retail Business Public Company Limited.

Flash Express competes with Best Express — which, like Flash, is also backed by Alibaba — and Kerry Express, which filed for an initial public offering in late August.

Even as online shopping and delivery has accelerated in recent months, some estimates suggest that the overall logistics market in Thailand will see its first contraction in the history this year. Chumpol Saichuer, president of the Thai Transportation and Logistics Association, said last month Thailand’s logistics business has already been hit hard by the slowing global economy.

India’s Razorpay becomes unicorn after new $100 million funding round

Bangalore-headquartered Razorpay, one of the handful of Indian fintech startups that has demonstrated accelerated growth in recent years, has joined the coveted unicorn club after raising $100 million in a new financing round, the payments processing startup said on Monday.

The new financing round, a Series D, was co-led by Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC and Sequoia India, the six-year-old Indian startup said. The new round valued the startup at “a little more than $1 billion,” co-founder and chief executive Harshil Mathur told TechCrunch in an interview.

Existing investors Ribbit Capital, Tiger Global, Y Combinator, and Matrix Partners also participated in the round, which brings Razorpay’s total to-date raise to $206.5 million.

Razorpay accepts, processes, and disburses money online for small businesses and enterprises. In recent years, the startup has expanded its offerings to provide loans to businesses and also launched a neo-banking platform to issue corporate credit cards, among other products.

Mathur and Shashank Kumar (pictured above), who met each other at IIT Roorkee, started Razorpay in 2014. They began to explore opportunities around payments processing business after realizing just how difficult it was for small businesses such as young startups to accept money online less than a decade ago. There were very few payment processing firms in India then and startups needed to produce a long-list of documents.

The early team of about 11 people at Razorpay shared a single apartment as the co-founders rushed to meet with over 100 bankers to convince banks to work with them. The conversations were slow and remained in a deadlock for so long that the co-founders felt helpless explaining the same challenge to investors numerous times, they recalled in an interview last year.

To say things have changed for Razorpay would be an understatement. It’s become the largest payments provider for business in India, said Mathur. Razorpay, which competes with Prosus Ventures’ PayU, accepts a wide-range of payment options including credit cards, debit cards, mobile wallets, and UPI.

“Razorpay has established itself as a clear leader, with its strong focus on customer experience and product innovation,” said Choo Yong Cheen, Chief Investment Officer for Private Equity at GIC, in a statement. “GIC has a long track record of partnering with leading fintech companies globally and is delighted to partner with Razorpay in its journey to transform payments and banking.”

Some of Razorpay’s clients include budget lodging decacorn Oyo, e-commerce giant Tokopedia, top food delivery startups Zomato and Swiggy, online learning platform Byju’s, ride-hailing giant Gojek, supply chain platform Zilingo, caller ID service Truecaller, travel ticketing firms Yatra and Goibibo, and telecom giant Airtel.

The startup expects to process about $25 billion in transactions — up five times from last year — for nearly 10 million of its customers this year, said Mathur.

He attributed some of the growth to the coronavirus pandemic, which he said has accelerated the digital adoption among many businesses.

On the neo-banking and capital side, Mathur said, Razorpay expects RazorpayX and Razorpay Capital to account for about 35% of the startup’s revenue by the end of March next year.

Mathur said the startup’s payment processing service continues to be its fastest growing business and does not need much capital to grow, so the startup will be deploying the fresh funds to expand its neo-banking offerings to include vendor payment, and expense and tax management and other features.

The startup, which aims to work with over 50 million businesses by 2025, may also acquire a few firms as it explores opportunities around inorganic expansion in the neo-banking category, said Mathur.

“We will continue to make an impactful contribution to the growth of the industry, aid adoption in the under-served markets and drive new practices and a new thinking for the industry to follow. And this investment fits perfectly with our growth strategy,” he said.

While the coronavirus pandemic has slowed down deal-makings in India, about half a dozen startups in the country including online leaning platform Unacademy, and Pine Labs have secured the unicorn status.