Walmart partners with self-driving startup Nuro to test autonomous grocery delivery in Houston

Walmart this morning announced a new pilot program that will test autonomous grocery delivery in the Houston market starting next year. The retailer is partnering with autonomous vehicle company Nuro, a robotics company that uses driverless technology to deliver goods to customers. Nuro’s vehicles in this case will delivery Walmart online grocery orders to a select group of customers who opt into the service in Houston.

The autonomous delivery service will involve R2, Nuro’s custom-built delivery vehicle that carries products only with no onboard drivers or passengers, as well as autonomous Toyota Priuses that deliver groceries.

The program’s goal is to learn more about how autonomous grocery delivery could work and how such a service can be improved to better serve Walmart’s shoppers.

Nuro’s focus to date has been developing a self-driving stack and combining it with a custom unmanned vehicle designed for last-mile delivery of local goods and services. The vehicle has two compartments that can fit up to six grocery bags each.

The company has raised more than $1 billion from partners, including SoftBank, Greylock Partners and Gaorong Capital. In March, the company announced it had raised $940 million in financing from Softbank Vision Fund.

Nuro is known for its pursuit of autonomous delivery. But it also licensed its self-driving vehicle technology to Ike, the autonomous trucking startup. Ike now has a copy of Nuro’s stack, which is worth billions, based on this latest round. Nuro also has a minority stake in Ike.

Nuro’s partnership with Walmart is hardly its first. The company partnered in 2018 with Kroger to pilot a delivery service in Arizona. The pilot, which initially used Toyota Prius vehicles, transitioned in December to the delivery bot. The autonomous vehicle called R1 is operating as a driverless service without a safety driver on board in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale.

The Nuro partnership isn’t Walmart’s first autonomous delivery pilot, either. The retailer earlier this year tapped the startup Udelv to test autonomous grocery deliveries in Arizona. This summer, it kicked off a test with Gatik A.I., an autonomous vehicle startup to test grocery delivery from Walmart’s main warehouse in Bentonville, Arkansas. Walmart also launched a pilot with self-driving company Waymo in 2018 to test rides to Walmart for grocery pickup, as well as a test with Ford and Postmates for autonomous grocery delivery.

“Our unparalleled size and scale has allowed us to steer grocery delivery to the front doors of millions of families – and design a roadmap for the future of the industry,” said Tom Ward, Walmart’s SVP of digital operations, in a statement. “Along the way, we’ve been test driving a number of different options for getting groceries from our stores to our customers’ front doors through self-driving technology. We believe this technology is a natural extension of our Grocery Pickup and Delivery service, and our goal of making every day a little easier for customers,” he aded.

Walmart’s Online Grocery business is booming, but today still relies on partnerships with third-party delivery services. Currently, Walmart partners with delivery providers across the U.S. to facilitate deliveries, including Point Pickup, Skipcart, AxleHire, Roadie, Postmates, and DoorDash. It has also tried, then ended, relationships with DelivUber and Lyft in the past. By the end of 2019, Walmart Grocery will offer nearly 3,100 pickup locations and 1,600 stores that support grocery delivery.

The retailer’s investments in its online grocery business helped boost sales and benefitted consumers by offering an affordable competitor to Amazon, Target’s Shipt, Instacart, and others. In Q3, Walmart’s grocery business helped online sales grow 41%, ahead of the 35% gain expected, leading Walmart to another earnings beat and 21 quarters of growth in the U.S.

In the quarter, Walmart earnings rose to $1.16 a share on revenue of $127.99 billion. However, Walmart’s e-commerce business is losing money as it continues to invest in new technologies and acquisitions, which has led to internal tensions.

Walmart says its pilot program will Nuro will kick off in 2020.

Jiji raises $21M for its Africa online classifieds business

Pan-African digital classifieds company Jiji has raised $21 million in Series C and C-1 financing from six investors, led by Knuru Capital.

The Nigeria based venture, co-founded by Ukrainian entrepreneur Vladimir Mnogoletniy, has an East to West presence that includes Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya.

Buyers and sellers in those markets use Jiji to transact purchases from real estate to car sales.

“We are the largest marketplace in Africa where people can sell pretty much anything…We are like a combination of eBay and Craigslist for Africa,” Mnogoletniy told TechCrunch on a call.

The classifieds site has two million listings on its Africa platforms and hit eight million unique monthly users in 2018, per company stats.

Jiji sees an addressable market of 400 million people across its operating countries, according to Mnogoletniy. The venture bought up one of its competitors in April this year, when it acquired the assets of Naspers owned online marketplace OLX in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Jiji’s top three categories for revenues and listings (in order) are vehicle sales, real estate, and electronics sales (namely mobile phones).

With the recent funding, the company’s total capital raised from 2014 to 2019 comes to $50 million. Knuru Capital CEO Alain Dib confirmed the Abu Dhabi based fund’s lead on Jiji’s most recent round.

Jiji plans to use the latest investment toward initiatives to increase the overall number of buyers, sellers and transactions on its site. The company will also upgrade the platform to create more listings and faster matching in the area of real-estate, according to Mnogoletniy.

For the moment, Jiji doesn’t have plans for country expansion or company purchases. “Maybe at some point we will consider more acquisitions, but for the time being we’d like to focus on those five markets,” Mnogoletniy said — referring to Jiji’s existing African country presence.

To ensure the quality of listings, particularly in real-estate, Jiji employs an automated and manual verification process. “We were able to eliminate a high-percentage of fraud listings and estimate fraud listings at less than 1%,” said Mnogoletniy.

He recognized the challenge of online scams originating in Nigeria. “We take data protection very seriously. We have a data-control officer just to do the data-protection verification.”

With the large consumer base and volume of transactional activity on its platform, Jiji could layer on services, such as finance and payments.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions about adding segments other than our main business. We decided that for the next three to five years, we should be laser focused on our core business — to be the largest marketplace in Africa for buying and selling to over 400 million people,” Mnogoletniy said.

The company faces an improving commercial environment for its goals, with Africa registering some of the fastest growth in the world for smartphone adoption and internet penetration.

Jiji also faces competitors in Africa’s growing online classifieds space.

Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia, which listed in April in an NYSE IPO, operates its Jumia Deals digtial marketplace site in multiple African countries.

Swiss owned Ringier Africa has classified services and business content sites in eight French and English speaking countries. On car sales, Nigerian startup Cars45 has created an online marketplace for pricing, rating, and selling used-autos. 

Adding to the trend of foreign backed ventures entering Africa’s internet business space, Chinese owned Opera launched an online buy/sell site, OList, last month connected its African payment app, OPay.

eBay operates a partnership with MallforAfrica for limited goods sales from Africa to the U.S., but hasn’t gone live yet on the continent.

On outpacing rival in its markets, Jiji’s co-founder Vladimir Mnogoletniy touts the company’s total focus on the classifieds business, market experience, and capital as advantages.

“We’ve spent five years and raised $50 million to build Jiji to where it is today. It would take $50 to $100 million for these others to have a chance at building a similar business,” he said.

Will the 2020s be online advertising’s holistic decade?

With less than two months left in the decade, advertising is again entering a new phase of rapid expansion with customer experience front and center.

The explosion of data and identity management, combined with technical advancements in real-time signal detection and machine learning, present new opportunities to respond to consumers, but mastering this ability enables marketers to create “magic moments” — instances of hyper-relevant content, delivered at the perfect time and place. 

We’ll see evolutions on the back end in terms of delivery and measurement — as well as on the consumer-facing end — through new creative deployments that enhance the brick-and-mortar shopping trip. Marketers will be held to a higher standard, both by clients demanding world-class performance and proof, as well as consumers who want relevancy, helpfulness and privacy from their brand relationships. 

Achieving this balance won’t be an easy task, but the most progressive marketers will succeed in driving this industry toward a more customer-centric future because they took steps to evolve before it was too late. With that in mind, here are five ways we expect advertising to become more holistic in the 2020s: 

Smart data will take priority over big data

Most marketers have heard the adage, “garbage in, garbage out.” For too long, the industry relied on sheer quantity of data with no quality metrics for making key audience assumptions. This mentality has had a detrimental effect on our industry, creating an ecosystem where people simply hate ads and brands focus on viewability over ROI.

To truly understand our audiences, we must first turn data from multi-channel interactions into smart, actionable insights. This involves not only understanding who the customer is, but what motivates them. 

Progressive marketers will continue to invest heavily in identity graphs to tie critical data and behaviors to individual profiles across channels. Using data science and machine learning, marketers will then be able to advance their knowledge about consumers to new levels, employing new messaging tactics based not only on value, but also on what inspires action. Key nuances, like distinguishing a deal-seeker from a value-seeker, will lead to more engaging personalized experiences and ultimately better ROI for advertisers.

We’ll see a flurry of investment in real-time engagement

We live in a world where our technology predicts where we are going, what we are seeking and how long it will take to get there by recognizing our patterns and everyday behaviors. The benefits in terms of convenience and knowledge are addictive. Look no further than email, social and Alexa to see how real-time awareness and time savings from these interactions impact our everyday lives.  

For marketers, capturing this lightning in a bottle has always been elusive — until now. The rise of real-time advertising, customer data platforms (CDPs), data science and machine learning have created the ability to detect purchases as well as online and real world location signals in real-time. This enables marketers to not only predict the next shopping trip, but what a consumer is likely to buy, when it matters most.

These sense-and-respond capabilities will enable progressive marketers to create experiences of enormous value at the moments that matter, such as triggering an offer of relevance upon entering a store or delivering a tailored experience at a specific time and location. The new decade will bring about massive investments into these technologies given their immediate ability to influence consumers during the actual purchase process. We’ll see budgets being specifically carved out to support real-time advertising and technologies as marketers optimize and convert users with greater effectiveness.  

For consumers, it means that the in-store experience will continue to become more interactive, with mobile devices as the connecting point between e-commerce and brick and mortar. Brands that thrive in this environment will win by delivering meaningful creative that connects both online and offline worlds in a helpful and relevant way.

Cutting-edge tech will create new ad experiences

Africa Roundup: Nigerian fintech gets $360M, mints unicorn, draws Chinese VC

November 2019 could mark when Nigeria (arguably) became Africa’s unofficial capital for fintech investment and digital finance startups.

The month saw $360 million invested in Nigerian focused payment ventures. That is equivalent to roughly one-third of all the startup VC raised for the entire continent in 2018, according to Partech stats.

A notable trend-within-the-trend is that more than half — or $170 million — of the funding to Nigerian fintech ventures in November came from Chinese investors. This marks a pivot in China’s engagement with Africa to tech. We’ll get to that.

Before the big Chinese backed rounds, one of Nigeria’s earliest fintech companies, Interswitch, confirmed its $1 billion valuation after Visa took a minority stake in the company. Interswitch would not disclose the amount to TechCrunch, but Sky News reporting pegged it at $200 million for 20%.

Founded in 2002 by Mitchell Elegbe, Interswitch pioneered the infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s then predominantly paper-ledger and cash-based economy.

The company now provides much of the tech-wiring for Nigeria’s online banking system that serves Africa’s largest economy and population. Interswitch offers a number of personal and business finance products, including its Verve payment cards and Quickteller payment app.

The financial services firm has expanded its physical presence to Uganda, Gambia and Kenya . The Nigerian company also sells its products in 23 African countries and launched a partnership in August for Verve cardholders to make payments on Discover’s global network.

Visa and Interswitch touted the equity investment as a strategic collaboration between the two companies, without a lot of detail on what that will mean.

One point TechCrunch did lock down is Interswitch’s (long-awaited) and imminent IPO. A source close to the matter said the company will list on a major exchange by mid-2020.

For the near to medium-term, Interswitch could stand as Africa’s sole tech-unicorn, as e-commerce venture Jumia’s volatile share-price and declining market-cap — since an April IPO — have dropped the company’s valuation below $1 billion.

Circling back to China, November was the month that signaled Chinese actors are all in on African tech.

In two separate rounds, Chinese investors put $220 million into OPay and PalmPay — two fledgling startups with plans to scale in Nigeria and the broader continent.

PalmPay, a consumer oriented payments product, went live last month with a $40 million seed-round (one of the largest in Africa in 2019) led by Africa’s biggest mobile-phone seller — China’s Transsion.

The startup was upfront about its ambitions, stating its goals to become “Africa’s largest financial services platform,” in a company release.

To that end, PalmPay conveniently entered a strategic partnership with its lead investor. The startup’s payment app will come pre-installed on Transsion’s mobile device brands, such as Tecno, in Africa — for an estimated reach of 20 million phones.

PalmPay also launched in Ghana in November and its UK and Africa based CEO, Greg Reeve, confirmed plans to expand to additional African countries in 2020.

OPay’s $120 million Series B was announced several days after the PalmPay news and came only months after the mobile-based fintech venture raised $50 million.

Founded by Chinese owned consumer internet company Opera — and backed by 9 Chinese investors — OPay is the payment utility for a suite of Opera developed internet based commercial products in Nigeria. These include ride-hail apps ORide and OCar and food delivery service OFood.

With its latest Series A, OPay announced it would expand in Kenya, South Africa, and Ghana.

Though it wasn’t fintech, Chinese investors also backed a (reported) $30 million Series B for East African trucking logistics company Lori Systems in November.

With OPay, PalmPay, and Lori Systems, startups in Africa have raised a combined $240 million from 15 Chinese investors in a span of months.

There are a number of things to note and watch out for here, as TechCrunch reporting has illuminated (and will continue to do in follow-on coverage).

These moves mark a next chapter in China’s engagement in Africa and could raise some new issues. Hereto, the country’s interaction with Africa’s tech ecosystem has been relatively light compared to China’s deal-making on infrastructure and commodities.

There continues to be plenty of debate (and critique) of China’s role in Africa. This new digital-phase will certainly add a fresh component to all that. One thing to track will be data-privacy and national-security concerns that may emerge around Chinese actors investing heavily in African mobile consumer platforms.

We’ve seen lines (allegedly) blur on these matters between Chinese state and private-sector actors with companies such as Huawei.

As OPera and PalmPay expand, they may need to do some reassuring of African regulators as countries (such as Kenya) establish more formal consumer protection protocols for digital platforms.

One more thing to follow on OPay’s funding and planned expansion is the extent to which it puts Opera (and its entire suite of consumer internet products) in competition with multiple actors in Africa’s startup ecosystem. Opera’s Africa ventures could go head to head with Uber, Jumia, and M-Pesa — the mobile money-product that put Kenya out front on digital finance in Africa before Nigeria.

Shifting back to American engagement in African tech, Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey was on the continent in November. No sooner than he’d finished his first trip, Dorsey announced plans to move to Africa in 2020, for 3 to 6 months, saying on Twitter “Africa will define the future (especially the bitcoin one!).”

We still don’t know much about what this last trip — or his future foray — mean in terms of concrete partnerships, investment, or market moves in Africa from Dorsey and his companies.

He visited Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and Ethiopia and met with leaders at Nigeria’s CcHub (Bosun Tijani), Ethiopia’s Ice Addis (Markos Lemming), and did some meetings with fintech founders in Lagos (Paga’s Tayo Oviosu).

I know most of the organizations and people Dorsey talked to pretty well and nothing has shaken out yet in terms of partnership or investment news from his recent trip.

On what could come out of Dorsey’s 2020 move to Africa, per his tweet and news highlighted in this roundup, a good bet would be it will have something to with fintech and Square.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch

African tech around the ‘net

U.S. online shoppers already spent $50B in November, holiday season on track for $143.7B

Facing a shorter holiday shopping season this year, U.S. retailers started rolling out their Black Friday deals earlier than usual. That move has paid off, according to new e-commerce data shared by Adobe Analytics this morning, which found that U.S. consumers have already spent $50.1 billion online between November 1 and November 26, 2019 — which represents a comparable increase of 15.8 percent year-over-year.

This year, Thanksgiving arrived on November 28, a full week later than it did in 2018 when it came on November 22. That left retailers with 6 fewer days to drive post-Thanksgiving Day sales — a situation it hadn’t been in since 2013, when the shorter time frame led to serious delivery struggles. To salvage the lost shopping days (and to not again find themselves in a similar situation as 2013), retailers simply rolled out their deals a week early.

For example, Amazon kicked off a Black Friday deals week on November 22. Walmart introduced early savings through “Buy Now” deals on Walmart.com, in addition to a pre-Black Friday event that started on Nov. 22. Target integrated Shipt’s same-day shopping service into its app and ran a preview sale, weekend deals, and today, Nov. 27, an early access sale. Other retailers followed suit, as well.

But consumers weren’t even waiting for these Black Friday preview deals to start shopping. According to Adobe Analytics, which tracks online transactions for 80 of the top 100 U.S. retailers, all 26 days in November so far have surpassed $1 billion in online sales. Seven days even passed $2 billion in sales, which made 2019 the first year to see multiple $2 billion days this early in the shopping season.

And as of this morning, $240 million has already been spent online, representing 19.3% growth year-over-year, and putting the day on track to hit $2.9 billion.

 

Based on this data, Adobe believes its earlier forecast of $143.7 billion spent during the full holiday shopping season (Nov.-Dec.) remains accurate. That estimate represents a 14.1% rise from a year ago, according to Adobe. In addition, the three biggest shopping days — Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday — will also see increases, it says.

Thanksgiving Day sales are forecast to jump 19.7% year-over-year to $4.4 billion; Black Friday is expected to grow by 20.5% to reach $7.5 billion; and Cyber Monday sales are expected to top the charts at $9.4 billion, an increase of 19.1% year-over-year — a new record.

The firm also sees a surge in mobile shopping this year, with 34.3% of all e-commerce sales being made via a smartphone, up 24.2% year-over-year. App Annie’s mobile shopping forecast had also predicted a record numbers of mobile shoppers, with a 25% year-over-year increase in time spent mobile shopping during the weeks of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The firm said shoppers will spend 2.2 billion hours globally across shopping apps this holiday season.

Other notable trends include a rise in “buy online, pickup in-store” shopping — 61% will take advantage of this, leading to 27% more in sales over last year. Plus email promotions this season have led to 16.5% of all online revenue, up 10% year-over-year. Paid search accounted for 23.7% of sales, while social media led to just 2.8%.

In terms of products, shoppers are buying Apple AirPods, Apple Laptops, Samsung and LG TV’s, Frozen 2 toys, L.O.L Surprise Dolls, NERF toys, Pikmi Pops, Fortnite toys, and games like Pokemon Sword/Shield, Jedi Fallen Order, and Madden 20.

“With the shorter shopping season and retailers starting their promotions earlier, Adobe is seeing holiday discounts already well underway even before Thanksgiving Day,” said Jason Woosley, Vice President of Commerce Product & Platform at Adobe. “For televisions alone, shoppers are already seeing discounts twice as deep as expected with average savings yesterday of 17.5%. Those consumers who grab their smartphone to do some quick online shopping after dinner are likely to find offers that are even better than this time last year,” he added.

 

Sim Shagaya’s uLesson African edtech startup raises $3.1M

Nigerian founder Sim Shagaya is back with a new startup —  uLesson — that has raised a $3.1 million seed round led by TLcom Capital.

The venture is integrating mobile platforms, SD cards, culture-specific curriculum and a network of tutors to bridge educational gaps for secondary school students in Nigeria and broader Africa.

Founded in 2019 by Shagaya — who also founded Nigerian e-commerce startup Konga and ad venture E-Motion — uLesson is headquartered in Lagos with a production studio in Jos.

The startup has been in development phase and plans to go to market in February 2020 in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Gambia — Shagaya told TechCrunch on a call.

“We’re targeting Anglophone West Africa…for a market of effectively 300 million people,” he said.

On product demand, Shagaya notes the priority placed on education across West African households vs. structural deficiencies — such as student teacher ratios as high as 1:70 in countries such as Nigeria.

“We have this massive gap…We’re adding more babies in this country nominally than all of Western Europe…Even if the [Nigerian] government was super efficient, it couldn’t catch up with the educational needs of the young people that are coming up,” Shagaya said.

To address this, uLesson will offer an app-based home education kit for students with an up-front yearly subscription price of around $70 and the option to pay as you go. The startup’s product pack will contain a dongle, SD card, and a set of headphones to connect to Android devices.

Curriculum on the uLesson program will include practice tests and tailored content around math, physics, chemistry, and biology. The venture has already created 3000 animated videos for core subjects, according to Shagaya.

To leverage high android mobile penetration in Africa — and minimize data-streaming costs — uLesson content and performance assessment will come via a combination of streaming and SD cards.

Parents and students can connect online temporarily to update the app and sync curriculum and results, while operating off-line for the bulk of lessons.

Shagaya likened the use of SD cards to the old Netflix model of sending and returning DVD’s by mail, prior to faster and more affordable internet service in the U.S.

The uLesson program will also package a human component. The startup plans to deploy a network of counselors in major distribution areas to instruct on how to use app and follow lesson plans.

uLesson is to be a supplement to secondary school education and a more affordable and effective alternative to private tutors, explained Shagaya.

After taking uLesson to market in Africa’s most populous nation — Nigeria — and other countries in the region, Shagaya and team plan to adapt the product for a future East Africa launch.

In both Nigeria and Kenya uLesson will face competition from existing ventures. Edtech in Africa doesn’t have as many companies (or as much VC funding) as leading startup sectors fintech and e-commerce, but there are a number of players.

Source: Briter Bridges

Nigeria has online edu startups, such as Tuteria. Feature phone based student learning company Eneza Education has scaled in Kenya and expanded to Ghana.

uLesson could count having Shagaya as CEO as one of its advantages in the edtech space. The venture marks the founder’s return to the startup scene after a hiatus. Shagaya earned a Harvard MBA and worked for Google before repatriating to Nigeria to found several digital companies.

His best known venture, Konga, went head to head with online retailer Jumia in pioneering e-commerce for Nigeria and Africa. Konga was sold in a distressed acquisition in 2018.

Shagaya successfully exited his digital advertising venture E-Motion this year, after it was purchased by Loatsad Promedia.

The Nigerian tech entrepreneur confirmed he’s redirected some of that windfall into uLesson’s $3.1 million seed-round.  As part of TLcom’s lead on the investment, partners Omobola Johnson and Ido Sum will join uLesson’s board, Sum confirmed to TechCrunch.

For his part, Sim Shagaya underscores the for-profit status of his new startup, while noting it carries greater meaning for him than past commercial endeavors.

“If you drill down to it all, all our problems in Africa are tied this problem of education…If we do this right, our impact will be huge. For me this is probably the most important work I’ll do,” he said.

Hulu is down, and nobody’s sure why

Hulu is currently down.

We’re not sure why, and neither does Hulu. A stream of tweets complaining about the outage surfaced Sunday morning on the U.S. east coast, but it seems like a global outage. In response, Hulu’s Twitter support didn’t seem to know either, instead telling frustrated users that it’s looking into it.

Fantastic.

We’ve reached out for comment but we haven’t heard back yet. Stay tuned for more. (Or switch to another streaming service instead.)

China Roundup: Y Combinator’s short-lived China dream

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. Last week, we looked at how Alibaba and Tencent fared in the last quarter; the talk in Silicon Valley and Beijing this week is on Y Combinator’s sudden retreat from China. We will also discuss the enduring food delivery war in the country later.

Brief adventure in the East

The storied Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator announced the closure of its China unit just a little over a year after it entered the country. In a vague statement posted on its official blog, the organization said the decision came amid a change in leadership. Sam Altman, its former president who hired legendary artificial intelligence scientist Lu Qi to initiate the China operation, recently left his high-profile role to join research outfit OpenAI. With that, YC has since refocused its energy to support “local and international startups from our headquarters in Silicon Valley.”

What was untold is the insurmountable challenge that multinationals face in their attempt to win in a wildly different market. Lu Qi, who wore management hats at Baidu and Microsoft before joining YC, was clearly aware of the obstacles when he said in an interview (in Chinese) in May that “multinational corporations in China have almost been wiped out. They almost never successfully land in China.” The prescription, he believes, is to build a local team that’s given full autonomy to make decisions around products, operations, and the business.

A former executive at an American company’s China branch, who asked to remain anonymous, argued that Lu Qi’s one-man effort can’t be enough to beat the curse of multinationals’ path in China. “All I can say is: Lu has taken a detour. Going independent is the best decision. When it comes to whether Chinese startups are suited for mentorship, or whether incubators bring value to China, these are separate questions.”

What’s curious is that YC China seemed to have been given a meaningful level of freedom before the split. “Thanks to Sam Altman and the U.S. team, who agreed with my view and supported with much preparation, YC China is not only able to enjoy key resources from YC U.S. but can also operate at a completely independent capacity,” Lu said in the May interview.

Moving on, the old YC China team will join Lu Qi to fund new companies under a newly minted program, MiraclePlus, announced YC China via a Wechat post (in Chinese). The initiative has set up its own fund, team, entity and operational team. The deep ties that Lu has fostered with YC will continue to benefit his new portfolio, which will receive “support” from the YC headquarters, though neither party elaborated on what that means.

Alibaba’s food delivery nemesis

The food delivery war in China is still dragging on two years after the major consolidation that left the market with two major players. Meituan, the local services company backed by Tencent, has managed to attain an expanding share against Alibaba-owned Ele.me. According to third-party data (in Chinese) provided by Trustdata, Meituan accounted for 65.1% of China’s overall food delivery orders during the second quarter, steadily rising from just under 60% a year ago. Ele.me, on the other hand, has lost nearly 10% of the market, slumping to 27.4% from 36% a year ago.

In terms of monetization, Meituan generated 15.6 billion yuan ($2.2 billion) in revenue from its food delivery segment in the quarter ended September 30. That dwarfs Ele.me, which racked up 6.8 billion yuan ($970 million) during the same period. Both are growing north of 30% year-over-year.

meituan dianping

Source: Meituan

This may not be all that surprising given Alibaba has arguably more imminent battles to fight. The e-commerce leader has been consumed by the rise of Pinduoduo, which has launched an assault on China’s low-tier cities with its ultra-cheap products and social-driven online shopping experience. Meituan, on the other hand, is fixated on beefing up its main turf of on-demand neighborhood services after divesting its costly bike-sharing endeavor. 

When both contestants have the capital to burn through — as they have demonstrated through heavily subsidizing customers and restaurants — the race comes down to which has greater control of user traffic. Meituan holds a competitive edge thanks to its merger with Dianping, a leading restaurant review app akin to Yelp, back in 2015. Dianping today operates as a standalone brand but its food app is deeply integrated with Meituan’s delivery services. For example, hundreds of millions of users are able to place Meituan-powered food delivery orders straight from Dianping.

Alibaba and Meituan used to be on more friendly terms just a few years ago. In 2011, the e-commerce giant participated in Meituan’s $50 million Series B financing. Before long, the two clashed over control of the company. Alibaba is known to impose a heavy hand on its portfolio companies by taking up majority stakes and reshuffling the company with new executives. That’s because Alibaba believes that “only when you operate can you generate synergies and really create exponential value,” said vice chairman Joe Tsai in an interview. Whereas if you just make a financial investment, you’re counting an internal rate of return. You’re not creating real value.”

Ele.me lived through that transformation. As of September, Alibaba has reportedly (in Chinese) completed replacing Ele.me’s management with its pool of appointed personnel. Ele.me’s founder Zhang Xuhao left the company with billions of yuan in cash and joined a venture capital firm (in Chinese).

Meituan’s founder Wang Xing had more unfettered pursuits. In a later financing round, he refused to accept Alibaba’s condition for portfolio companies to eschew Tencent investments, a strategy of the giant to hobble its archrival. That botched the partnership and Alibaba has since been gradually offloading its Meituan shares but still held onto small amounts, according to Wang in 2017, “to create trouble” for Meituan going forward.

VTEX, an e-commerce platform used by Walmart, raises $140M led by SoftBank’s LatAm fund

E-commerce now accounts for 14% of all retail sales, and its growth has led to a rise in the fortunes of startups that build tools to enable businesses to sell online. In the latest development, a company called VTEX — which originally got its start in Latin America helping companies like Walmart expand their business to new markets with an end-to-end e-commerce service covering things like order and inventory management; front-end customer experience and customer service — has raised $140 million in funding, money that it will be using to continue taking its business deeper into more international markets.

The investment is being led by SoftBank, specifically via its Latin American fund, with participation also from Gávea Investimentos and Constellation Asset Management. Previous investors include Riverwood and Naspers, and Riverwood continues to be a backer, too, the company said.

Mariano Gomide, the CEO who co-founded VTEX with Geraldo Thomaz, said the valuation is not being disclosed, but he confirmed that the founders and founding team continue to hold more than 50% of the company. In addition to Walmart, VTEX customers include Levi’s, Sony, L’Oréal and Motorola . Annually, it processes some $2.4 billion in gross merchandise value across some 2,500 stores, growing 43% per year in the last five years.

VTEX is in that category of tech businesses that has been around for some time — it was founded in 1999 — but has largely been able to operate and grow off its own balance sheet. Before now, it had raised less than $13 million, according to PitchBook data.

This is one of the big rounds to come out of the relatively new SoftBank Innovation Fund, an effort dedicated to investing in tech companies focused on Latin America. The fund was announced earlier this year at $2 billion and has since expanded to $5 billion. Other Latin American companies that SoftBank has backed include online delivery business Rappi, lending platform Creditas, and proptech startup QuintoAndar.

The common theme among many SoftBank investments is a focus on e-commerce in its many forms (whether that’s transactions for loans or to get a pizza delivered) and VTEX is positioned as a platform player that enables a lot of that to happen in the wider marketplace, providing not just the tools to build a front end, but to manage the inventory, ordering and customer relations at the back end.

“VTEX has three attributes that we believe will fuel the company’s success: a strong team culture, a best-in-class product and entrepreneurs with profitability mindset,” said Paulo Passoni, managing investment partner at SoftBank’s Latin America fund, in a statement. “Brands and retailers want reliability and the ability to test their own innovations. VTEX offers both, filling a gap in the market. With VTEX, companies get access to a proven, cloud-native platform with the flexibility to test add-ons in the same data layer.”

Although VTEX has been expanding into markets like the US (where it acquired UniteU earlier this year), the company still makes some 80% of its revenues annually in Latin America, Gomide said in an interview.

There, it has been a key partner to retailers and brands interested in expanding into the region, providing integrations to localise storefronts, a platform to help brands manage customer and marketplace relations, and analytics, competing against the likes of SAP, Oracle, Adobe, and Salesforce (but not, he said in answer to my question, Commercetools, which builds Shopify -style API tools for mid- and large-sized enterprises and itself raised $145 million last month).

E-commerce, as we’ve pointed out before, is a business of economies of scale. Case in point, while VTEX processes some $2.5 billion in transactions annually, it makes a relative small return on that: $69 million, to be exact. This, plus the benefit of analytics on a wider set of big data (another economy of scale play), are two of the big reasons why VTEX is now doubling down on growth in newer markets like Europe and North America. The company now has 122 integrations with localised payment methods.

“At the end of the day, e-commerce software is a combination of knowledge. If you don’t have access to thousands of global cases you can’t imbue the software with knowledge,” Gomide said. “Companies that have been focused on one specific region and now realising that trade is a global thing. China has proven that, so a lot of companies are now coming to us because their existing providers of e-commerce tools can’t ‘do international.'” There are very few companies that can serve that global approach and that is why we are betting on being a global commerce platform, not just one focused on Latin America.”

Equity Dive: Poshmark’s origin story with co-founder & CEO Manish Chandra

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

We have something a bit different for you this week. Equity co-host Kate Clark recently sat down with Manish Chandra, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Poshmark, and one of his earliest investors, NFX managing partner James Currier.

If you haven’t heard of Poshmark, it’s an online platform for buying and selling clothes. Basically, it’s the thrift shop of the 21st century. We asked Chandra how he and co-founders Tracy Sun, Gautam Golwala and Chetan Pungaliya cooked up the idea for Poshmark, what bumps they faced along the way, how they raised venture capital and, of course, what details of their upcoming initial public offering he could share with us. Meanwhile, Currier dished about the company’s early days, when the Poshmark team worked hard on the floor of Currier’s office.

Unfortunately, neither Chandra or Currier were willing to share deets about Poshmark’s IPO, reportedly expected soon. But they both shared interesting insights into building a successful venture-backed company, battling competition and putting your best foot forward.

Glad you guys came back for another episode, we’ll see you soon.

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