What will Tumblr become under the ownership of tech’s only Goldilocks founder?

This week, Automattic revealed it has signed all the paperwork to acquire Tumblr from Verizon, including its full staff of 200. Tumblr has undergone quite a journey since its headline-grabbing acquisition by Marissa Mayer’s Yahoo in 2013 for $1.1 billion, but after six years of neglect, its latest move is its first real start since it stopped being an independent company. Now, it’s in the hands of Matt Mullenweg, the only founder of a major tech company who has repeatedly demonstrated a talent for measured responses, moderation and a willingness to forego reckless explosive growth in favor of getting things ‘just right.’

There’s never been a better acquisition for all parties involved, or at least one in which every party should walk away feeling they got exactly what they needed out of the deal. Yes, that’s in spite of the reported $3 million-ish asking price.

Verizon Media acquired Tumblr through a deal made to buy Yahoo, under a previous media unit strategy and leadership team. Verizon Media has no stake in the company, and so headlines talking about the bath it apparently took relative to the original $1.1 billion acquisition price are either willfully ignorant or just plain dumb.

Six years after another company made that bad deal for a company it clearly didn’t have the right business focus to correctly operate, Verizon made a good one to recoup some money.

Aligned leadership and complementary offerings drive a win-win

Axios’ Dan Primack on ‘the most polarizing startup that exists’

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week was a bit special. Instead of meeting up at the TechCrunch HQ to record the episode, Kate and Alex met up in muggy Boston at Drift’s office, where we linked up with Axios’s Dan Primack. And since we were feeling chatty, we went a bit long.

After checking in with Primack (he has a newsletter and a podcast), we first dealt with the latest from Tumblr. In short, Verizon Media is selling Tumblr to Automattic for a few dollars. How did Verizon wind up owning Tumblr? Ah. Well, Yahoo bought it. Later, after Verizon bought AOL, it bought Yahoo. Then it smushed them together and called it Oath. Then Verizon decided that it didn’t like that much and renamed the group Verizon Media. But Verizon doesn’t want to own media (besides TechCrunch, of course), so it sold Tumblr to Automattic, a venture-backed company best known for operating WordPress.

That’s a lot, I know. What matters is that Yahoo bought Tumblr for more than $1 billion. Verizon sold it for around $3 million. Now, Automattic now has a few hundred new employees and a shot at juicing its userbase before it goes public.

After that, we lamented that the WeWork S-1 had yet to appear. This was a tragedy, frankly. We had expected to spend half the show riffing on WeWork’s financials, alas…

So we turned to some normal material, like Ramp’s recent $7 million raise to take on Brex, and, SmartNews’s recent round, which gave it an eye-popping $1.1 billion valuation.

We ran a bit long because we were having fun, fitting in some conversation surrounding the notes from the SEC regarding the now-dead and then-fraudulent Rothenberg Ventures. More on that here if you want to get angry.

And finally, Vision Fund 2. It’s been a big source of interest for everyone on the show, and we expect whatever the second-act Vision Fund winds up becoming to be a big damn deal. The fund will invest in more than just consumer marketplaces, in fact, it’s eyeing more AI businesses and even biotech. That should be interesting.

All that and we have a lot more good stuff coming. Thanks for listening to the show, and we’ll be right back.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercast, Pocket Casts, Downcast and all the casts.

Verizon is selling Tumblr to WordPress parent, Automattic

Six years after Yahoo purchased Tumblr for north of $1 billion, its parent corporation is selling the once dominant blogging platform. WordPress owner Automattic Inc. has agreed to take the service off of Verizon’s hands. Terms of the deal are undisclosed, but the number is “nominal,” compared to its original asking price, per an article in The Wall Street Journal.

Once the hottest game in town, the intervening half-decade has been tough on Tumblr, as sites like Facebook, Instagram, Reddit and the like have since left the platform in the dust. More recently, a decision to barn porn from the platform has had a marked negative impact on the service’s traffic.

The news certainly isn’t surprising. In May, it was reported that Verizon was looking for a new owner for the site it inherited through its acquisition of Yahoo. Tumblr was Yahoo’s largest acquisition at the time, as then-CEO Marissa Mayer “promise[d] not to screw it up” in a statement made at the time.

Tumblr proved not to be a great fit for Yahoo — and even less so Verizon, which rolled the platform into its short-lived Oath business and later the Verizon Media Group (also TechCrunch’s umbrella company). On the face of it, at least, Automattic seems a much better match. The company runs WordPress, one of the internet’s most popular publishing tools. As part of the deal, the company will take on 200 Tumblr staffers.

Developing…

What we can learn from DTC success with TV ads

One of the most-discussed plot twists in recent advertising has been the pivot of Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) brands to linear TV. These data-driven, digital-first players are expanding well beyond Facebook and Instagram—and becoming serious players on the largest traditional medium in advertising.

A January 2019 Video Advertising Bureau study found that in 2018, 120 DTC brands collectively spent over $2 billion in TV ads—up from $1.1 B in 2016. 70 of those 2018 advertisers ran TV ads for the first time.

But while we know that they’re advertising on TV, what may be less discussed is whether they’re succeeding on television—and what strategies they use to achieve their success.

At EDO, we have a unique and differentiated ability to measure how DTC advertisers perform on TV by tracking incremental online searches above baseline in the minutes immediately following individual TV ad airings as viewers translate their interest in advertised brands and products directly into online engagement with them.

By measuring incremental search activity across 60 million national TV ad airings since 2015, we are able to effectively isolate the effects of TV ad placement and creative decisions that are most likely to cause online engagement.

We ran the numbers on DTCs as well as advertisers in various other categories to better understand how DTCs specifically are succeeding in TV ads—and what DTCs who are considering TV advertising can do to achieve success on TV.

Table of Contents

Does the David vs. Goliath story play out on TV?

The DTC revolution is a quintessential David and Goliath story. In vertical after vertical, small, digital-native upstarts are changing the game and overtaking major brands. Does that story play out on TV as well—or is TV advertising one area where DTC marketers have finally met their match?

To answer that question, EDO looked at how effectively TV ads elicited viewer activity since September 2018 across eight major industry categories including DTC. Guided by historical ad performance across billions of ads, we rated ad performance based on how closely the DTC ads came to meeting the benchmark volume of brand-related online activity in the minutes following each TV ad airing.

We index each industry accordingly—giving an index value of 100 to an ad that meets benchmark standards, and below-par ads getting a score under 100 while higher-scoring ads receive a score over 100. We chose to set our index baseline of 100 to the average Consumer Packaged Good (CPG) ad since it is such a large and broad ad category. Our results are as follows:

Social Capital reincarnated

Nine months ago, the once high-flying venture capital fund Social Capital made the bold decision to stop accepting outside capital and operate as a family office, in essence.

The co-founder of the outfit, brazen billionaire and early Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya, pledged to upend his investment strategy and make fewer but much larger investments as a means to improve his returns. Naturally, a near-complete exodus of Social Capital’s venture capitalists followed.

Today, the firm’s three founders, Palihapitiya, Mamoon Hamid and Ted Maidenberg, have gone their separate ways. Palihapitiya is rewriting the Social Capital playbook, Hamid is busy reinvigorating Kleiner Perkins and Maidenberg is building on top of the data-driven strategy and proprietary software dubbed “Magic 8-Ball” he built at Social Capital, with a new firm called Tribe Capital.

Quietly, Tribe Capital’s co-founders, Maidenberg and former Social Capital partners Arjun Sethi and Jonathan Hsu, have deployed millions of dollars in Social Capital portfolio companies like Slack and Carta, hired several former Social Capital employees and flexed a data-first approach that looks pretty damn familiar.  

Data or bust

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – OCTOBER 19: Founder/CEO of Social Capital, Chamath Palihapitiya, speaks onstage during “The State of the Valley: Where’s the Juice?” (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)

Social Capital began laying the foundation for a data-driven approach to investing years ago. Now, Tribe Capital is doubling down.

From its founding in 2011, Social Capital established itself as a contrarian fund out to “fix capitalism.” Its strategy and reputation as an up-and-comer unafraid of new tricks earned it stakes in Slack, SurveyMonkey, Box, Bust and many other admirable upstarts.

As the firm matured, its partners experimented. In 2016, its early-stage investment team made the daring choice to rely on data rather than gut-feel alone to make its investment decisions, confronting a timeworn ideology that the best VCs have a special skill-set that enables them to spot future unicorns.

Using an operating system for early-stage investing dubbed “capital-as-a-service” and the growth and data analysis tool Magic 8-Ball — a sort of QuickBooks for startup data — Social Capital forwent the traditional pitch process and rapidly evaluated thousands of companies on the basis of metrics and achievements alone.

Palihapitiya, Maidenberg, Hamid and the other members of the partnership were on a mission to do venture the right way. Until they weren’t.

“I found us incrementally drifting away from our core mission, and our strategy was increasingly that of a traditional investment firm,” Palihapitiya wrote last year. “It became harder to take the risks we took in 2011 and it became easier to play the same game as every other VC.”

At its peak, Social Capital employed a team of 80. Once Palihapitiya confirmed his intent to transition the firm away from venture, the team began to shrink, fast. Today, the firm employs 30, including partners Ray Ko, Andy Artz and Jay Zaveri, as well as principal Alex Danco. One-third of that number were hired after the big pivot.

The Social Capital diaspora 

Social Capital co-founder Mamoon Hamid left the fund in 2017 for Kleiner Perkins.

Social Capital’s former investors have since identified their second acts.

In the last year, Sakya Duvvuru, a former partner, founded Nellore Capital Management, and Carl Anderson, another former partner, started Marcho Partners.

Tony Bates joined Genesys as its CEO, Mike Ghaffary accepted a general partner role at Canvas Ventures, Ashley Carroll is consulting full-time, Kristen Spohn says she is still exploring opportunities, Adam Nelson joined South Park Commons as a venture partner and Tejinder Gill joined Collaborative Fund as a principal.

Hamid, for his part, resolved to re-establish Kleiner Perkins’ once-stellar reputation.

“Kleiner Perkins was a firm that was in desperate need of a change of its own,” Hamid tells TechCrunch. “It was a unique opportunity and I was about to turn 40. I thought, there is one thing I wanted to do in my career that I hadn’t done before and that was to turn around one of the best venture firms of all time.”

Hamid’s August 2017 departure from Social Capital represented the beginning of the end of the partnership. Though Hamid, a co-founder and leading dealmaker, asserts turmoil at the firm began after his exit. 

Nine months after Hamid made the call to move on, Arjun Sethi, who once led Social Capital’s early-stage investment team, made the same call as did Maidenberg and Hsu. Simultaneously, growth equity chief Tony Bates and vice chairman Marc Mezvinsky were said to be departing.

The mass exodus continued, culminating in Palihapitiya’s final declaration: Social Capital was finished with venture capital.

‘Magic 8-Ball’ — reborn

Maidenberg, Sethi and Hsu built Tribe Capital in the image of Social Capital. With similar DNA, the three men are attempting to upgrade an early-stage investment strategy they not only created, but nearly perfected.

“Those guys did a very good job working for me,” Palihapitiya tells TechCrunch. “I’m super proud to see them launch their own venture fund. It was a really important, defining experience for me; I hope they have the same level of success, if not more.”

But where Social Capital was mission-driven, regularly backing healthcare and education businesses, Tribe Capital makes no such claim. And where Social Capital leaned on data to inform its investment thesis, Tribe is putting its full weight into it.

We are believers that it’s hard to do a lot of things well, so we wanted to focus on one thing we are good at: early-stage venture with the approach of recognizing early-stage product-market fit,” Hsu tells TechCrunch. “At Social Capital we did that, but we did 30 other things, too.”

In total, seven former Social Capital investors and employees are working on Tribe. Georgia Kinne, a former Social Capital executive assistant, leads operations. Two former Social Capital data scientists, Jake Ellowitz and Brendan Moore, joined Tribe in the same role. And Alexander Chee, Social Capital’s former head of product development, is on board as an entrepreneur-in-residence.

Tribe won’t say how much capital they have raised yet or how exactly their three funds are structured, aside from confirming that only one is operating as a traditional venture fund. Paperwork filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in late April, however, confirms a $150 million target for the debut venture effort. 

It’s been a year since Tribe began investing. In that time, it’s put money in Slack, Front, Cover and SFox. Most recently, it participated in Carta’s $300 million Series E, which valued the business at $1.7 billion. All of these companies were previously backed by Social Capital.

Tribe is making deals of all shapes and sizes across industries, with a particular focus on enterprise, fintech and SaaS startups. In addition to deploying heftier sums to late-stage businesses like Slack, Tribe has made 10 seed bets of roughly $25,000 each, leveraging its data platform to make investment calls.

“The income statement and balance sheet are the lingua franca for an established company to communicate the financial health of its business,” Hsu writes. “These accounting concepts are often unhelpful when inspecting an unprofitable early-stage company. For a startup, what’s needed is a common quantitative language for what matters, namely, a quantitative framework for assessing product-market fit.”

Tribe’s quantitative framework is called Magic 8-Ball, a diligence tool for potential investments created by Maidenberg and Hsu during their Social Capital tenure. The tool measures product-market fit, growth trajectory and more of early-stage businesses, where, as Hsu mentions, financial data may be lacking.

“We use data like accountants; it’s not a magical AI machine,” Hsu said. “If other firms want to copy, by all means, they can try. We aren’t here to be antagonistic, we are here to be partners to founders and other investors.”

So far, Magic 8-Ball has poured through data provided by some 200 companies, with plans to hit 1,000 per year. In total, Tribe has deployed $100 million.

Tribe’s 8-Ball tool is said to be much more complex than the earlier model, according to a source with knowledge of the platform. It’s like when Yahoo engineers Jan Koum and Brian Acton left the search and email giant to build something even better, the source, who asked not to be named, said. That business became the messaging powerhouse WhatsApp.

Hamid, who’s not affiliated with Tribe but aware of their investment strategy, made a similar comparison.

“It’s like if you’re an engineer at Cisco working on WebEx,” Hamid tells TechCrunch. “You’re a great engineer but you can do better, you can [do your own] company. Guess what? That’s Zoom. That’s Eric Yuan . And Zoom is worth $20 billion and WebEx was worth $3 billion. That’s pretty. That’s the story of Silicon Valley. That’s creative disruption.”

Hamid, however, was careful to point out the differences between Social Capital and Tribe. The DNA may be similar but they aren’t identical.

Social Capital represented a new kind of venture firm in favor of creative disruption. Tribe Capital represents a second go, a sort of Social Capital 2.0 sans Chamath Palihapitiya.

Bogged down by the conflict surrounding its leader’s flair for controversy, Social Capital wasn’t set up to succeed. The Magic-8 Ball, on the other hand, may be just right.

“Why did we get back together instead of going elsewhere? That is a reasonable question,” Hsu said. “We had good job offers but we had a viewpoint of the world that we wanted to keep working on together.”

The Slack origin story

Let’s rewind a decade.

It’s 2009. Vancouver, Canada.

Stewart Butterfield, known already for his part in building Flickr, a photo-sharing service acquired by Yahoo in 2005, decided to try his hand — again — at building a game. Flickr had been a failed attempt at a game called Game Neverending followed by a big pivot. This time, Butterfield would make it work.

To make his dreams a reality, he joined forces with Flickr’s original chief software architect Cal Henderson, as well as former Flickr employees Eric Costello and Serguei Mourachov, who like himself, had served some time at Yahoo after the acquisition. Together, they would build Tiny Speck, the company behind an artful, non-combat massively multiplayer online game.

Years later, Butterfield would pull off a pivot more massive than his last. Slack, born from the ashes of his fantastical game, would lead a shift toward online productivity tools that fundamentally change the way people work.

Glitch is born

In mid-2009, former TechCrunch reporter-turned-venture-capitalist M.G. Siegler wrote one of the first stories on Butterfield’s mysterious startup plans.

“So what is Tiny Speck all about?” Siegler wrote. “That is still not entirely clear. The word on the street has been that it’s some kind of new social gaming endeavor, but all they’ll say on the site is ‘we are working on something huge and fun and we need help.’”

Siegler would go on to invest in Slack as a general partner at GV, the venture capital arm of Alphabet .

“Clearly this is a creative project,” Siegler added. “It almost sounds like they’re making an animated movie. As awesome as that would be, with people like Henderson on board, you can bet there’s impressive engineering going on to turn this all into a game of some sort (if that is in fact what this is all about).”

After months of speculation, Tiny Speck unveiled its project: Glitch, an online game set inside the brains of 11 giants. It would be free with in-game purchases available and eventually, a paid subscription for power users.

Chipper Cash convinces Joe Montana to invest in African fintech

The African no-fee, cross-border payment startup Chipper Cash has raised a $2.4 million seed round led by Deciens Capital.

The payments company also persuaded 500 Startups and Liquid 2 Ventures—co-founded by Joe Montana—to join the round.

Chipper Cash’s Ugandan chief executive, Ham Serunjogi, pitched the U.S. football legend directly. “He was quite excited about what we’re doing and his belief that the next wave of [tech] growth will come from…Africa,” Serunjogi told TechCrunch.

Chipper Cash went live in October 2018, joining a growing field of fintech startups aiming to scale digital finance applications across Africa’s billion plus population.

The venture Serunjogi co-founded with Ghanaian Maijid Moujaled offers no-fee, P2P, cross-border mobile-money payments in Africa.

Based in San Francisco based startup—with offices in Ghana and Nairobi—Chipper Cash has processed 250,000 transactions for over 70,000 active users, according to Serunjogi.

In conjunction with the seed round, Chipper Cash is launching Chipper Checkout: a merchant focused, C2B, mobile payments product.

This side of the startup’s offerings isn’t free, and Chipper Cash will use revenues from Chipper Checkout—in addition to income generated from payment volume float—to support its no-fee mobile money business.

Sheel Mohnot, who led 500 Startups’ investment in Chipper Cash, likened company’s model to PayPal.

“When PayPal started it was just a consumer to consumer free app. It still is free for consumer to consumer, they but they monetized the merchant side. That model is tried and tested. It just doesn’t exist in Africa, so Chipper has the opportunity to do that,” he told TechCrunch.

In addition to Kenya’s M-Pesa—the global success story for digital payments—there are a number of mobile money products in Africa, from MTN’s Mobile Money in Ghana to Tigo Pesa in Tanzania.

The limiting factor, though, according to Chipper Cash’s CEO is interoperability, or that mobile-money transfers across product platforms, currencies, and borders generally don’t work.

“Our tech settles cross-border currency transactions in real-time, and that’s part of the value proposition of the platform,” he said.

The startup will expand beyond its current four country operations in Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda within the next 12 months. Chipper Cash also plans to tap the global remittance market for Sub-Saharan Africa, a large pool of roughly $38 billion, in the near future.

Remittances won’t be the firms’ top focus, however. Serunjogi believes there’s more volume to be found within Africa. “Demographics, migration, and regional economic-integration within the continent means there’ll be an infinitely growing amount of cross-border commercial activity within Africa,” he said. “When it comes to payments, the pie is growing and…the percentage of that pie that is digital payments will also grow.”

The journey for Chipper Cash’s founders from Africa to founding a startup and pitching to Joe Montana passes through Iowa. Serunjogi and Moujaled met when doing their undergraduate degrees at Grinnell College.  Stints at Silicon Valley companies followed: Facebook for Serunjogi and Flickr, Yahoo!, and Imgur for Moujaled.

Chipper Cash was accepted in 500 Startups’ Batch 24 in 2018 and their demo day for the accelerator program gained the attention of Liquid 2 Ventures.

The VC fund’s Rocio Wu invited them to pitch to Joe Montana and the team in March 2019.

“Africa is extremely fragmented with different languages, cultures and currencies, Chipper Cash is uniquely positioned to tackle cross-border mobile payments with interoperability,” Wu told TechCrunch on the investment.

Wu will join Chipper Cash as a board observer. The startup is the second Africa investment for the fund. Liquid 2 Ventures is also an investor in logistics startup Lori Systems, the 2017 Startup Battlefield Africa winner.

Startups building financial technologies for Africa’s 1.2 billion population are gaining greater attention of investors. As a sector, fintech (or financial inclusion) attracted 50 percent of the estimated $1.1 billion funding to African startups in 2018, according to Partech.

By a number of estimates, the continent’s 1.2 billion people represent the largest share of the world’s unbanked and underbanked population. An improving smartphone and mobile-connectivity profile for Africa (see GSMA) turns this scenario into an opportunity for mobile based financial products.

As more startups enter African fintech, Chipper Cash believes it can compete on its cross-currency and no-fee offerings and the growing size of the market. “It’s so large that it is unlikely to be a zero-sum game in terms of who wins. There will be multiple successful players,” said Serunjogi

Chipper Cash also joins a list of African founded, Africa focused fintech firms that have chosen to set up HQs in San Francisco with offices and operations on the continent. Payments gateway company Flutterwave and lending venture Mines.io (both with Nigerian founders) maintain SF headquarters with operations in Lagos. Serunjogi touts the benefits of this two continent organizational structure for access to both VC and developer markets in the U.S. and Africa.

As for Chipper Cash’s continuing relationship with investor Joe Montana, “Having access to a someone with the leadership qualities of Joe to provide advice and guidance…that’s something that’s priceless,” said Serunjogi.

Grocery delivery startup Honestbee is running out of money and trying to sell

Honestbee, the online grocery delivery service in Asia, is nearly out of money and trying to offload its business.

The company has held early conversations with a number of suitors in Asia, including ride-hailing giants Grab and Go-Jek, over the potential acquisition of part, or all, of its business, according to two industry sources with knowledge of the talks.

Founded in 2015, Honestbee works with supermarkets and retailers to deliver goods to customers using its store pickers, delivery fleet and mobile apps. The company is based in Singapore and operates in eight markets across Asia: Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Japan. In some markets it has expanded to food deliveries and, in Singapore, it operates an Alibaba-style online/offline store called Habitat.

The company makes its money by taking a cut of transactions from consumer transactions, while it also monetizes delivery services separately.

Despite looking impressive from the outside, the company is currently in crisis mode due to a cash crunch — there’s a lot happening right now.

From talking to several former and current staff, TechCrunch has come to learn that Honestbee is laying off employees, it has a range of suppliers who are owed money, it has “paused” its business in the Philippines, it has closed R&D centers in Vietnam and India, it isn’t going to make payroll in some markets and a range of executives have quit the firm in recent months.

Honestbee’s Habitat store includes a cashless and automated checkout experience, among other online-offline services

The issue is that the company is running out of money thanks to a business model with tight margins that’s largely unproven in Asia Pacific.

One source told TechCrunch that the company doesn’t currently have the funds to pay its staff this month. A source inside the company confirmed that Honestbee has told Singapore-based staff that they won’t be paid in time, but it isn’t clear about employees based in other markets. Previously, staff have been paid inconsistently — with late salary payments sent as bank transfers happening twice this year, according to the source.

One reason that the Philippines business has closed temporarily — as Tech In Asia first reported this week — is that it is out money, and waiting on Honestbee HQ in Singapore to provide further capital. Already, the saga has proven to be too much for Honestbee’s head of the Philippines — Crystal Gonzalez — who has quit the company, according to a source within Honestbee Philippines.

Gonzalez helped build Viber’s business in the Philippines, where it is a top messaging player, and she was previously with Yahoo before launching Honestbee. She is said to have grown frustrated at a lack of funds when the Philippines is the company’s best-performing market on paper.

Indeed, the situation is so dire that suppliers and partners have been paid late, or left unpaid entirely, in the Philippines and other markets. Honestbee takes payment for grocery deliveries, after which it is supposed to provide the transaction, minus its cut, to its supermarket partners. But it has been slow to pay vendors, with two in Singapore — FairPrice and U Stars — cutting ties with the startup.

Unclear financing

On the subject of financials, Honestbee looks to be toward the end of its runway.

The company has always taken a fairly secretive line on its financing. On launch, it announced a $15 million Series A investment from Formation8, a Korean firm where Honestbee CEO Joel Sng was a co-founder, but it has said nothing more since. Tech In Asia dug up filings last year that show it has raised a further $46 million from more Korean investors, but the startup declined to comment on its financing when contacted by TechCrunch.

It looks like that capital is nearly gone, at least based on what has been declared.

Internal numbers for Honestbee in December 2018, seen by TechCrunch, show that it lost nearly $6.5 million, with around $2.5 million in net revenue for the month. GMV — the total amount of transactions on its platform before deductions to partners — reached nearly $12.5 million in December, but costs — chiefly discounts to lure new customers and online marketing spend — dragged the company down. A former employee said that monthly retention is often single-digit percent in some markets because of the “outrageous” use of coupons to hit short-term revenue goals.

That internal data showed that the Philippines business accounted for around 40 percent of Honestbee’s overall GMV, which backs up Gonzalez’ apparent frustration at a lack of investment. That said, the Philippines unit remains some way from profitability, with a net loss of more than $1 million in December.

High burn rate

Three markets — Singapore, the Philippines and Taiwan — accounted for more than 80 percent of GMV and net income, making it unclear why Honestbee continues to operate in other countries, including the expensive Japanese market, when its funding level is perilously low.

Brian Koo, whose family controls LG, is listed as a shareholder for both of Honestbee’s ventures registered in Singapore. His Formation 8 VC firm has provided significant funding for the startup.

More pertinently, operating at that burn rate would give Honestbee less than 10 months of runway if it used the $61 million capital float that it is known to have raised. That suggests that the company has raised more money; however, none of the sources who spoke to TechCrunch were able to verify whether there has been additional fundraising.

Current and former employees explained that Honestbee doesn’t have a CFO and that all high-level decisions, and particularly those around budgets and spending, are managed by CEO Sng and his right-hand man, Roger Koh, whose LinkedIn lists his current job as a principal with Formation 8.

Filings in Singapore indicate that Honestbee has $55.9 million in assets through two registered companies. A common shareholder across the two is Brian Koo, a member of the LG family that founded Formation Group, the parent behind the Formation 8 fund.

Layoffs and a potential sale

While the financials are hazy, it is very clear that Honestbee is up against it right now.

The company released a statement earlier this week that makes some admissions around layoffs and restructuring but still glosses over current struggles:

In 2014, honestbee started in Singapore with the mission of providing a positive social and financial impact on the lives and businesses that we touch. Today, we are a regional business with footprints in Hong Kong, Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan, Philippines, Japan and Malaysia.

Over the years, we have continued to be committed to our staff, partners and consumers. We have made good progress to implement new process and ways of working to remain efficient and relevant in the ever-changing business environment. The launch of habitat by honestbee in Singapore was a valuable lesson for us where it showed the potential growth in the O2O business and *it has been voted one of the must-see retail innovations in the world this year.

Following a strategic review of our company’s business, we are temporarily suspending our food verticals in Hong Kong and Thailand to simplify what we do and how we do it to better meet what our consumers want. Some roles within the organization will no longer be available. Approximately 6% of our global headcount in the organization are affected.

The status of honestbee in the remaining markets remain unchanged as we evaluate and we will continue to operate and contribute to honestbee Pte Ltd.

Sources close to the company told TechCrunch that more job losses are likely to come beyond the six percent in this statement. Executives who saw the writing on the wall have left in recent months, including the heads of business for Japan and Indonesia, a senior member of the team behind Habitat and the company’s head of people. One executive hired to raise capital for Honestbee quit within a month; he declined to comment and doesn’t list the company on his LinkedIn bio.

Secondly, Honestbee’s temporary suspension of food services in Hong Kong and Thailand isn’t likely to have a huge impact on its overall business, as groceries are the primary focus and neither market is particularly huge for the company. While Habitat has gotten attention for its forward-thinking, a physical retail store will require significant capital and it is likely, in its early days, to only increase the burn rate. Sources in the company told TechCrunch that, already, it has switched suppliers for some items as invoices went unpaid.

Despite the chaos, the potential of a sale is real.

Fresh from a recent $1.5 billion Vision Fund investment with the promise of $2 billion more this year, Grab — which is valued at $14 billion — is on a spending spree.

The Singapore-based company has pledged to make at least half a dozen acquisitions in 2019 and a deal to boost its nascent food and grocery play in Southeast Asia has some merit. Grab has the challenge of competing with Go-Jek, its $9.5 billion-valued rival that built a strong offering in Indonesia and is expanding across Southeast Asia with an emphasis on its food delivery. Grab, meanwhile, is active in eight markets across Southeast Asia and is now actively expanding from transportation services to food and more.

Likely adding to the frustration for Honestbee, its rival HappyFresh this week announced a $20 million investment. HappyFresh has undergone tough times, too. It pulled out of markets in 2016 to make its business more sustainable and today its CEO Guillem Segarra told TechCrunch that it is now operationally profitable.

Honestbee declined to respond to a range of questions from TechCrunch on whether it has plans to sell its business, its financing history and whether it has delayed paying employees.


If you have a tip about this story or others, you can contact TechCrunch reporter Jon Russell in the following ways:

Drone delivery startup Zipline launches UAV medical program in Ghana

Zipline, the San Francisco-based UAV manufacturer and logistics services provider, has launched a program in Ghana today for drone delivery of medical supplies.

Working with the Ghanaian government, Zipline will operate 30 drones out of four distribution centers to distribute vaccines, blood, and life-saving medications to 2000 health facilities across the West African nation daily.

“We’ll do 600 flights day…and serve 12 million people. This is going to be the largest drone delivery network on the planet,” Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo told TechCrunch on a call from Accra.

“No one in Ghana should die because they can’t access the medicine they need in an emergency,” Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo said in a statement. “That’s why Ghana is launching the world’s largest drone delivery service…a major step towards giving everyone in this country universal access to lifesaving medicine.”

The Ghana program adds a second country to Zipline’s live operations. Zipline got off the ground in Rwanda and has leveraged its experience in East Africa to begin testing medical delivery services in the United States.

Zipline has been making moves in Africa since at least 2016 — after it raised capital and solidified its mission to carve out a global revenue-generating business around UAV delivery of critical medical supplies.

To date, the startup has raised $41 million from investors including Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, and Subtraction Capital.

Founded in 2014, Zipline designs and manufactures its own UAVs, launch and landing systems, and logistics software. After a testing period in coordination with the government of Rwanda, Zipline went live in the East African country in 2016, claiming the first national drone-delivery program at scale in the world.

Through its non-profit foundation, the logistics giant UPS came in to partner with Zipline on the Rwanda program, and that support continues.

“They’re providing funding to build a lot of the infrastructure required, they are an adviser to us, and they provide some logistical support in moving equipment,” Rinaudo said of Zipline’s collaboration with the UPS Foundation. Zipline has also received grants and support from from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Pfizer .

Zipline then carried its experience in Africa to the U.S. In May 2018 the startup was accepted into the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program (UAS IPP). Out of 149 applicants, the Africa focused startup was one of 10 selected to participate in a drone pilot in the U.S.—and started testing beyond visual line of sight medical delivery services in North Carolina.

“Healthcare logistics is a $70 billion global industry, and it’s still only serving a golden billion on the planet,” says Rinaudo. “The economics of our business is pretty simple. We’re using small, electric, fully autonomous vehicles…these kinds of systems are much more efficient than the analog way of delivering things.”

Zipline is eyeing additional countries for delivery operations beyond Ghana, Rwanda, and its pilot operations in the U.S. “We’ll be launching in several additional countries, not all of which are in Africa,” said Rinaudo, though he declined to disclose specifics.

Zipline is well aware that its drone logistics systems have applications beyond medical supply chain services and Rinaudo confirmed moving cargo other than medical supplies is something Zipline has considered.

If the company moves toward other commercial applications, it could leverage its programs and relationships in Africa. The continent has become testbed for commercial drone delivery and regulatory structures.

Over the last two years South Africa passed commercial drone legislation to train and license pilots and Malawi opened a Drone Test Corridor to African and global partners. Over the same period, Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania have issued or updated drone regulatory guidelines and announced future UAV initiatives. The government of Tanzania launched a medical drone delivery program in 2019, with DHL as one of the main partners.

In addition to its launch today in Ghana, Zipline plans to move from pilot-phase to live-delivery of medical supplies in the U.S. sometime this summer, a company spokesperson confirmed.

Yahoo spinout Altaba is selling its entire Alibaba stake and closing down

Bye bye, Altaba . The Yahoo spinout created to house Yahoo’s lucrative stake in Alibaba and Yahoo Japan, announced today that it will sell its lucrative stake in Alibaba and shut up shop.

The entity has long existed as a proxy to Alibaba — some might argue Yahoo was the same in its final years — and the sale is expected to net shareholders around $40 billion.

Altaba was formed following AOL’s 2017 acquisition of Yahoo to create Oath — disclaimer: that’s TechCrunch’s parent, and it is now called Verizon Media Group — to keep hold of the 15 percent stake in Alibaba and a 35.5 percent stake in Yahoo Japan that Yahoo owned.

Those Yahoo Japan shares were unloaded in September for over $4 billion, and now Altaba will shift its remaining Alibaba holdings — that’s around 11 percent of the company following a partial sale last year; Altaba is Alibaba’s second-largest stakeholder — and disappear from the world by Q4.

The sale is expected to generate a net return of around $40 billion for Altaba stockholders — the provided range is between $39.8 billion and $41.1 billion based on share prices and associated expenditure — and it’ll happen in two parts. The first will see up to 50 percent of the stake sold, the rest will be traded if Altaba receives approval from its stockholders.

Therein Altaba — and Yahoo’s long association — with Alibaba will be over. The reality is that this essentially happened following the Oath deal, Altaba was merely created to hold the asset and at some point that would mean liquidating it. That day is now confirmed and on its way.

“Since June of 2017 we have taken a series of aggressive actions designed to drive shareholder value and these have yielded measurable results as our trading discount has narrowed and our stock has meaningfully outperformed a composite of its underlying assets. The right next action for shareholders is the plan we are announcing today as it represents the most definitive step, generally within our control, that we could take to reduce the discount to net asset value at which our Shares trade,” said Altaba CEO Thomas J. McInerney in a statement.

“Stocks are for trading. Any shareholder has the right to deal stock anytime on the market, for any purpose. We’re happy to have had Yahoo invest in Alibaba in the past and to see it now collecting a strong return on its investment,” an Alibaba spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The story of Yahoo’s involvement with Alibaba is a legendary one.

Yahoo invested $1 billion for 30 percent Alibaba back in 2005 through a (now famous) story between Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang and Alibaba president Jack Ma. Ma, a former English teacher who was then a government employee, was assigned to accompany Yang on a planned trip to see the Great Wall of China and their relationship went from there.

Yahoo infamously sold half of its stake back to Alibaba in 2012 through a deal that valued the shares at $13. Just two years later, Alibaba went public in a record-breaking U.S. IPO. Shares were $68 at the bell, and today they are worth around $181 so Yahoo missed out on an even greater fortune.