Netflix launches free plan in Kenya to boost growth

Netflix said on Monday it is launching a free mobile plan in Kenya as the global streaming giant looks to tap the East African nation that is home to over 20 million internet users.

The free plan, which will be rolled out to all users in Kenya in the coming weeks, won’t require them to provide any payment information during the sign-up, the company said. The new plan is available to any user aged 18 or above with an Android phone, the company said. It will also not include ads.

Netflix, available in over 190 countries, has experimented with a range of plans in recent years to lure customers in developing markets. For instance, it began testing a $3 mobile-only plan in India in 2018 — before expanding it to users in several other countries.

This is also not the first time Netflix is offering its service for free — or at little to no price. The company has previously supported free trials in many markets, offered a tiny portion of its original movies and shows to non-subscribers, and has run at least one campaign in India when the service was available at no charge over the course of a weekend.

But its latest offering in Kenya is still remarkable. The company told Reuters that it is making about one quarter of its movies and television shows catalog available to users in the free plan in the East African nation.

“If you’ve never watched Netflix before — and many people in Kenya haven’t — this is a great way to experience our service,” Cathy Conk, Director of Product Innovation at Netflix, wrote in a blog post.

“And if you like what you see, it’s easy to upgrade to one of our paid plans so you can enjoy our full catalog on your TV or laptop as well.”

The company didn’t disclose how long it plans to offer this free tier in Kenya — and whether it is considering expanding this offering to other markets.

On its past earnings calls, Netflix executives have insisted that they study each market and explore ways to make their service more compelling to all. The ability to sign up without a payment information lends credibility to such claims. Many individuals in developed countries don’t have a credit or debit card, rendering services requiring such payment instruments at the sign-up unattractive to them.

The new push to win customers comes as the company, which is also planning to add mobile games to its offering, added only 1.5 million net paying subscribers in the quarter that ended in June this year, lower than what it had forecast. Netflix, which has amassed over 209 million subscribers, as well as Amazon Prime Video and other streaming services are increasingly trying to win customers outside of the U.S. to maintain faster growth rates.

Earlier this year, Amazon introduced a free and ad-supported video streaming service within its shopping app in India to tap more customers.

Salesforce backs Indian payments startup Razorpay

Six-year-old Bangalore-based fintech Razorpay, which was valued at $3 billion in a financing round in April this year, has courted one more high-profile investor: Salesforce Ventures.

Razorpay said on Monday it has received a “strategic investment” from the venture arm of the American enterprise giant. The investment will help the startup “further strengthen its presence in the business banking space,” it said.

The two firms didn’t disclose the size of the investment, but Sequoia Capital India-backed startup said the deal will “make an impactful contribution to the industry and drive adoption and financial growth for underserved small businesses in the next twelve months.”

Razorpay accepts, processes and disburses money online for small businesses and enterprises — essentially everything Stripe does in the U.S. and several other developed markets. But the Indian startup’s offering goes much further than that: in recent years, Razorpay has launched a neobanking platform to issue corporate credit cards, and it also offers businesses working capital.

With the global giant Stripe still nowhere in the Indian picture, Razorpay has grown to become the clear market leader.

“At Razorpay, we want to make further strides on the idea of investing in India’s digital future and building an intelligent payment and banking infrastructure for the new- world. We are delighted to associate with Salesforce Ventures and Salesforce more broadly in India,” said Harshil Mathur, co-founder and chief executive of the fintech startup.

“I am certain that this investment, along with support from our existing investors will help build an ecosystem for a hassle-free, easy-to-integrate payments and banking experience. We also hope to expand, build new products and deliver this experience to businesses in South East Asian countries too.”

Monday’s deal is Salesforce Ventures’ second investment in the Indian startup ecosystem. The firm led a $15 million Series C financing round in Hyderabad-headquartered Darwinbox earlier this year.

“The journey towards a ‘less-cash’ economy has been accelerated with the pandemic. The rapid growth in digital payments over the last year has opened doors for technology innovation and Razorpay has been emerging as the company of choice for a lot of e-commerce businesses,” said Arundhati Bhattacharya, chairperson and chief executive of Salesforce India, in a statement.

“We are excited to support Razorpay in their journey to revolutionize digital finance not only in India, but globally as well,” added Bhattacharya, who joined the firm last year.

The Indian startup, which became a unicorn a year ago, said it has witnessed a 40-45% month-on-month growth in recent months. The startup is currently in the market to raise a new financing round and is negotiating a considerably larger valuation bump over the current value, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Amazon bets on Hindi voice shopping to reach wider India

Speaking of Amazon — which is reportedly conducting an investigation to find whether its lawyers bribed government officials in India — the company announced today it plans to roll out the voice shopping experience feature in the Hindi language in the South Asian market ahead of the Diwali festival in early November.

The e-commerce giant, which rolled out the voice shopping experience in English last year, said the feature in the Hindi language — which will roll out in “coming weeks” — will enable users to search for products and check their order status using voice commands such as “joote dikhao,” which is Hindi for ‘show me shoes.’

Only 10% of India’s 1.3 billion people speak English. And in recent years, voice search has dramatically surged in India as many new internet users find it difficult to type on virtual keyboards. Scores of tech companies — including Amazon’s rival, Flipkart — have in recent years made push to add support for more regional languages, or introduce support for voice queries — and in some cases, do both.

Amazon’s voice shopping experience will be available to only Android users, the company said.

“Since the launch of voice shopping in 2020, we are humbled to see by the adoption of voice by Amazon.in customers to fulfil their shopping needs has grown by 2X year-on-year. We will continue to focus on bringing new features for our customers on voice to make their shopping experience exciting and fulfilling,” said Kishore Thota, Director of Customer Experience and Marketing at Amazon India, in a statement.

The new rollout is part of a broader localization push from the company. Amazon said today that its website and apps are now also available in Marathi and Bengali. The website already supports five additional regional languages — Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu.

“Our aim with regional language shopping experience is to make ecommerce accessible, relevant and convenient for customers. Every month, tens of millions of customers visit Amazon.in in regional languages and 90% of the customers are from tier 2 and below cities. This festive season we are happy to expand the Amazon.in experience for our customers in Marathi and Bengali,” said Thota.

Indian news outlet The Ken reported last week that Amazon was also working on building a voice-based payments authentication system. The company declined to comment.

Amazon starts probe over bribe to gov’t officials by its lawyers in India, report says

Amazon has launched an investigation into the conduct of its legal representatives in India following a complaint from a whistleblower who alleged that one or more of the company’s reps had bribed government officials, Indian news and analysis outlet the Morning Context reported on Monday.

The company is investigating whether legal fees financed by it was used for bribing government officials, the report said, which cited unnamed sources and didn’t identify the government officials. Amazon has placed Rahul Sundaram, a senior corporate counsel, on leave, the report (paywalled) added.

In a statement to TechCrunch, an Amazon spokesperson said the company has “zero tolerance” for corruption, but didn’t comment on the investigation.

“We take allegations of improper actions seriously, investigate them fully, and take appropriate action. We are not commenting on specific allegations or the status of any investigation at this time,” the spokesperson added.

India is one of the key overseas markets for Amazon. The American e-commerce firm has invested over $6.5 billion in its South Asian nation’s operations and aggressively expanded to multiple categories in recent years.

The new development comes months after Reuters reported that Amazon had secretly favored big sellers, misrepresented its ties with those firms, and used such arrangements to circumvent the South Asian nation’s foreign investment rules.

Amazon is also subject of an ongoing antitrust investigation in India. A top level executive at the company, which made an unsuccessful attempt to appeal against that investigation, was summoned and questioned earlier this year by local police over allegations that one of its political dramas on Prime Video hurt religious sentiments and caused public anger.

The company later issued a rare apology to users in India over the nine-part mini series.

FloBiz raises $31 million to scale its neobank for small businesses in India

FloBiz, an Indian startup that is building a neobank for small- and medium-sized businesses in the South Asian market, said on Monday it has raised $31 million in a new financing round as it works to broaden its product offerings.

Sequoia Capital India and Think Investments co-led the 18-month-old startup’s Series B financing round. Existing investors Elevation Capital and Beenext also participated in the round, which brings FloBiz‘s all-time raise to over $41 million.

The startup’s marquee offering — called myBillBook — helps small- and medium-sized businesses digitize their invoicing, streamline business accounting, and automate workflows of their enterprises.

India, the world’s second largest internet market, is home to millions of small- and medium-sized businesses. Scores of startups have launched neobanks in the country in recent years to focus on serve millennials or businesses.

“SME-focussed neobanks are building engagement with business- clients through their ability to provide solutions like automated invoicing, collections/payments, accounting, inventory and sales management, taxes and in some cases interest on current deposits as well (banks can’t pay interest). This may help to ramp- up and upfront their monetisation prospects,” analysts at Jefferies wrote in a report to clients last week.

myBillBook, which supports Hindi, Gujarati and Tamil as well as English, will add support for “at least” five more regional languages within the next six months, the startup said, adding that the app has been downloaded over 5 million times.

“The product will also see deeper use of technologies like AI & image processing to make the onboarding process for the less tech-savvy SMB owners in tier 2 and tier 3 cities of India a delightful first step to digital accounting,” the startup said.

Scores of high-profile entrepreneurs — including Vijay Shekhar Sharma of Paytm, Kunal Shah of CRED, Jiten Gupta of Jupiter, Amrish Rau of Pine Labs, Krishnan Menon of BukuKas, and Nitin Gupta of Uni Cards — have also backed FloBiz in the new financing round.

“Small businesses are the real heroes of our economy. In order to power the SMB economy with technology, one needs deep understanding, instinct and empathy for this audience,” said Tejeshwi Sharma, Managing Director of Sequoia Capital India, in a statement.

“We are really impressed by the user centricity, product focus and experimentative approach of the FloBiz founders. There is almost a perfect founder market fit. The team is stoked to partner with FloBiz on their mission of building a neobank for the growing SMBs of India.”

Rahul Raj, co-founder and chief executive of FloBiz, said the startup will deploy the fresh capital to “accelerate projects which have been in the works up till now – building personalisable modules & features into myBillBook, diversifying core product offerings and preparing to roll out financial services. We have a slew of developments in the pipeline to further delight our SMB partners in the next 12 months.”

Google abused dominant position of Android in India, antitrust probe finds

Google has abused the dominant position of Android in India to illegally hurt competitors in the world’s second largest internet market, a two-year antitrust probe by nation’s watchdog has found.

The Android-maker reduced device manufacturing firms’ ability and incentive to develop and sell devices operating on alternative versions of Android, the probe found, according to two people have have been briefed on the findings.

Additionally, the report found Google’s move to make it mandatory for device manufacturers to pre-install its apps a violation of India’s competition law.

More than five dozen firms including Amazon and Apple responded to queries from the Indian watchdog — the Competition Commission of India — during the course of the investigation, the report said.

The Indian watchdog also found issues with the way Google has enforced policies on Play Store, saying those are “one-sided, ambiguous, vague, biased and arbitrary.”

Google said it looks forward to engage with the CCI to demonstrate how “Android has led to more competition and innovation, not less.”

The report’s findings — which are yet to be formally published by the CCI — is the latest setback for Google in India, where it has faced strong criticism from local entrepreneurs in recent quarters and several other antitrust probes.

The Alliance of Digital India Foundation, a group of 350 startups, founders and investors, lauded the CCI report’s findings and said the watchdog’s step “is in line with the Indian digital ecosystem’s needs.”

Byju’s acquires coding platform Tynker for $200 million in US expansion push

Byju’s said on Thursday it has acquired California-headquartered Tynker, a leading coding platform for K-12 students, the latest in a series of major purchases as the Indian edtech giant attempts to aggressively expand to international markets.

The companies didn’t disclose the terms of the deal, but a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that the Indian firm is spending about $200 million on the acquisition.

Tynker operates an eponymous coding platform. It has established itself as a leader in the space, having amassed over 60 million kids on its platform, Tynker founders told TechCrunch in an interview.

The eight-year-old startup, which gamifies the learning experience to make it more exciting for kids to participate, also maintains partnerships — and has presence in — over 100,000 schools across 150 nations, said Srinivas Mandyam.

Mandyam, as well as Tynker’s other co-founders — Krishna Vedati and Kelvin Chong — will continue with the firm after the acquisition, they said. Vedati said in an interview that the startups began exploring ways to collaborate earlier this year.

Byju Raveendran, founder and chief executive of Byju’s, told TechCrunch in an interview that Tynker’s asynchronous offering fits perfectly in Byju’s current portfolio. India’s most valuable startup acquired WhiteHat Jr, a coding platform that offers synchronous classes, last year in a $300 million deal. “Tynker’s offering is complimentary to WhiteHat Jr’s,” he said.

Tynker is the latest firm to be acquired by Byju’s, which has amassed over 100 million registered users — about 6.5 million of whom are paid customers — across the globe. The Bangalore-headquartered startup has this year along acquired Scholr, Aakash Institute, Hashlearn, Epic, and Great Learning for over $2 billion in cash and equity deals. Just last week it revealed that it had also purchased Times Internet-backed Gradeup for an undisclosed amount.

Raveendran said that Byju’s is continuing to explore more merger and acquisition opportunities. These acquisitions are helping Byju’s aggressively broaden its offerings and tap international markets in more meaningful ways, he said.

On the other side of the business, the Indian edtech giant is also beginning to explore an initial public offering. The startup has began conversations with bankers, some of whom have given the firm a proposed valuation of up to $50 billion, TechCrunch reported first last month.

Raveendran confirmed that “IPO is on the cards,” but said it’s too early to comment on a precise timeline.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Asian merchant commerce platform Pine Labs raises $100 million

Pine Labs said on Thursday it has raised an additional $100 million, just weeks after securing $600 million in a financing round, as the Asian merchant commerce platform begins to explore the public markets.

The U.S.-based investment management company Invesco Developing Markets Fund made the $100 million investment, the startup said in a statement. Pine Labs, which started its journey in India, was valued at $3 billion in its July financing round.

Pine Labs, which counts Sequoia Capital India, Temasek, PayPal and Mastercard among its early backers, offers hundreds of thousands of merchants payments terminals, invoicing tools and working capital.

Its payments terminal — also known as point-of-sale machines — are connected to the cloud, and offer a range of additional services such as working capital — to the merchants. Pine Labs’s payments terminal has integration with over two dozen banks and financial and technology partners.

This differentiates Pine Labs from the competition, whose terminals typically have integration with just one bank. Each time a rival firm strikes a new partnership with a bank, they need to deploy new machines into the market. This makes the whole deployment expensive for both the fintech and the bank. (This is why you also often see a restaurant has multiple terminals at the check out.) The startup says it processes tens of billions of payment transactions.

“Over the last 18 months we have scaled our Prepaid Issuing stack, Online Payments, and also the Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) offering. We continue to make progress in the larger Asian markets with our BNPL platform. Very excited to have a marquee investor like Invesco join us in the journey,” said B. Amrish Rau (pictured above), chief executive of Pine Labs, in a statement.

The startup is looking to file for an initial public offering within two years, Rau said in July. Indian newspaper Economic Times reported on Thursday that the company had hired Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs to advise the firm on the IPO.

“The Invesco Developing Markets Fund is pleased to invest in Pine Labs, a leading fintech services company in India that fits our strategy of seeking high quality companies that have durable long-term growth potential,” said Justin Leverenz, CIO of Developing Markets Equities at Invesco, in a statement.

Tiger Global-led $100M investment makes Apna India’s fastest unicorn

A 22-month-old startup that is helping millions of blue- and gray-collar workers in India learn new skills and find jobs has become the youngest firm to join the coveted unicorn status in the world’s second-largest internet market.

Apna announced on Thursday that it has raised $100 million in a round led by Tiger Global. The new round — a Series C — valued Apna at $1.1 billion. TechCrunch reported last month that Tiger Global, an existing investor in Apna, was in talks to lead a $100 million financing round in the startup at the unicorn valuation.

Owl Ventures, Insight Partners, Sequoia Capital India, Maverick Ventures and GSV Ventures also participated in the new round, which is the third investment secured by Apna this year. Apna was valued at $570 million in its Series B round in June this year.

The investors’ excitement comes as Apna has demonstrated an impressive growth in recent months. The startup has amassed over 16 million users on its eponymous Android app, up from 10 million in June this year.

Indian cities are home to hundreds of millions of low-skilled workers who hail from villages in search of work. Many of them have lost their jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic that has slowed several economic activities in the South Asian market.

Apna has built a platform that provides a community to these workers. In the community, they engage with each other, exchange notes to perform better at interviews and share tips to negotiate better compensation.

Image Credits: Apna

On top of this, Apna connects these workers to potential employers. In an interview with TechCrunch, Apna founder and chief executive Nirmit Parikh said more than 150,000 employers — including Zomato, Bharti AXA, Urban Company, BYJU’S, PhonePe, Burger King, Delhivery, Teamlease and G4S Global — are on the platform, and over 5 million jobs are active.

The startup, whose name is inspired from a cheerful 2019 Bollywood song, has facilitated over 18 million job interviews in the past 30 days, he said. Apna is currently operational in 28 Indian cities.

The idea for Apna came, Parikh has said, after he was puzzled to find that even as there are hundreds of millions of blue- and gray-collar workers in India, locating them when you need assistance with a task often proves very difficult.

Prior to starting Apna, Parikh, who previously worked at Apple, met these workers and went undercover as an electrician and floor manager to understand the problems they were facing. The problem, he found, was the disconnect. Workers had no means to find who needed them for jobs, and they were also not connected with one another. The community aspect of Apna, which now has over 70 such groups, is aimed at addressing this challenge.

The Apna app allows these workers to learn new skills to become eligible for more work opportunities. Apna has emerged as one of the fastest growing upskilling platforms — and that would explain why GSV Ventures and Owl Ventures, two high-profile firms known to back edtech startups, are investing in the Bangalore-based firm.

“Apna’s viral adoption is driven by a novel social and interactive approach to connecting employers with job seekers. We expect job seekers in search of meaningful connections and vetted opportunities to drive Apna’s continued explosive growth across India — and the world,” said Griffin Schroeder, partner at Tiger Global, in a statement.

Now the startup, which has started to monetize the platform, is ready to aggressively expand. Parikh said Apna will continue to expand to more cities in India and by early next year, Apna will begin its global expansion. Parikh said the startup is eyeing expansion in the USA, South East Asia and Middle East and Africa.

“We have already created a dent. Now we want to impact the lives of 2.3 billion,” he said. “We will require crazy amounts of resources and a world-class team to deliver. It’s a herculean task, and is going to take a village. But somebody has to solve it.”

Swedish caller-identification service Truecaller seeks to raise over $100 million in IPO

Truecaller, which operates an eponymous caller-identification service, said on Wednesday it is looking to raise $116 million in an initial public offering on Nasdaq Stockholm.

The 12-year-old Stockholm-headquartered firm, which counts India as its biggest market by users, is aiming for a valuation of about $3 billion in the IPO, according to earlier local media reports. The company said it plans to do its listing by fourth quarter of this year.

The firm, which has amassed 278 million monthly active users, has been working on its initial public offering for at least two years, according to TechCrunch’s past conversations with Truecaller co-founder and chief executive Alan Mamedi.

The firm counts Sequoia Capital and Atomica among its earlier investors. It has raised over $95 million over the years, according to Crunchbase. Six years ago, the firm engaged with some investors to raise an additional $100 million at a valuation of $1 billion, TechCrunch reported, but the deal never materialized.

“One of our objectives this year has been to prepare Truecaller for an IPO. Thanks to the strong feedback that we’ve received from potential investors, it feels very exciting to take the next step in this process. A listing of Truecaller is not only a milestone for Nami [the other co-founder], myself and all of our employees who have contributed to building Truecaller to the fantastic platform that it is today, but also to the growing Swedish tech ecosystem,” he said in a statement Wednesday.

“Even though we are twelve years into our incredible journey, we believe that this is just the beginning and we have a clear strategy to continue to grow and develop our services and products. I look forward to welcoming existing and new shareholders on this journey.”

Truecaller’s service allows users to avoid spam calls by identifying the callers, and also filters similar texts. The service is popular in many parts of the world, but India, where everyone receives dozens of such calls each month, is Truecaller’s biggest market by users.

Even as Apple and Google have improved the caller ID feature in their mobile operating systems in recent years, and taken several other steps to curb spam calls, Truecaller’s offerings remain unmatched.

The firm — which reported an operating revenue of $57 million in 2020, up from $22 million in 2018 — has expanded to additional categories such as financial services in recent years in India.

Truecaller will be the latest public exit for Sequoia Capital India this year. The venture fund, the most prolific investor in Indian startups, has seen five exits this year including food delivery startup Zomato, and Indigo Paints.

“Truecaller has made communication smarter, safer and more efficient across the world. As smartphone usage increases globally, fraud and unwanted communication has followed, and Truecaller has turned into an indispensable platform for consumers and businesses. With a clear focus on innovation and growth, Truecaller is on an exciting journey to reach even more users with even better products,” said Shailesh Lakhani, Managing Director at Sequoia Capital India, in a statement.