Felix Capital closes $300M fund to double down on DTC, break into fintech and make late-stage deals

To kick off 2020, one of Europe’s newer — and more successful — investment firms has closed a fresh, oversubscribed fund, one sign that VC in the region will continue to run strong in the year ahead after startups across Europe raised some $35 billion in 2019. Felix Capital, the London firm founded by Frederic Court that was one of the earlier firms to identify and invest in the trend of direct-to-consumer businesses, has raised $300 million, money that it plans to use to continue investing in creative and consumer startups and platform plays as well as begin to tap into a newer area, fintech — specifically startups that are focused on consumer finance. 

Felix up to now has focused mostly on earlier-stage investments — it now has $600 million under management and 32 companies in its portfolio in eight countries — based across both Europe and the US. Court said in an interview that a portion of this fund will now also go into later, growth rounds, both for companies that Felix has been backing for some time as well as newer faces.

As with the focus of the investments, the make-up of the fund itself has a strong European current: the majority of the LPs are European, Court noted. Although Asia is something it would like to tackle more in the future both as a market for its current portfolio and as an investment opportunity, he added, the firm has yet to invest into the region or substantially raise money from it.

Felix made its debut in 2015, founded by Court after a strong run at Advent Capital where he was involved in a number of big exits. While Court had been a strong player in enterprise software, Felix was a step-change for him into more of a primary focus on consumer startups focused on fashion, lifestyle and creative pursuits.

That has over the years included investing in companies like the breakout high-fashion marketplace Farfetch (which he started to back when still at Advent and is now public), Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP, the jewellery startup Mejuri, trend-watching HighSnobiety, and fitness startup Peloton (which has also IPO’d).

It’s not an altogether easygoing, vanilla list of cool stuff. Peloton and GOOP have had been mightily doused in snarky and sharky sentiments; and sometimes it even seems as if the brands themselves own and cultivate that image. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad press, I guess.

Although it wasn’t something especially articulated in startup land at the time of Felix’s launch, what the firm was honing in on was a rising category of direct-to-consumer startups, essentially all in the area of e-commerce and building brands and businesses that were bypassing traditional retailers and retail channels to develop primary relationships with consumers through newer digital channels such as social media, messaging and email (alongside their own DTC websites). 

This is not all that the company has focused on, with investments into a range of platform businesses like corporate travel site TravelPerk, Amazon -backed food delivery juggernaut Deliveroo and Moonbug (a platform for children’s entertainment content), as well as increasingly later stage rounds (for example it was part of a $104 million round at TravelPerk; a $70 million round for marketplace-building service Mirakl; and $23 million for Mejuri.

Court’s track record prior to Felix, and the success of the current firm to date, are two likely reasons why this latest fund was oversubscribed, and why Court says it wants to further spread its wings into a wider range of areas and investment stages.

The interest in consumer finance is not such a large step away from these areas, when you consider that they are just the other side of the coin from e-commerce: saving money versus spending money.

“We see this as our prism of opportunity,” said Court. “Just as we had the intuition that there was a space for investors looking at [DTC]… we now think there is enough evidence that there is demand from consumers for new ways of dealing with money and personal finance.”

The firm has from the start operated with a board of advisors who also invest money through Felix while also holding down day jobs. They include the likes of executives from eBay, Facebook, and more. David Marcus –who Court backed when he built payments company Zong and eventually sold it to eBay before he went on to become a major mover and shaker at Facebook and is now has the possibly Sisyphean task of building Calibra — is on the list, but that has not translated into Felix dabbling in cryptocurrency.

“We are watching cryptocurrency, but if you take a Felix stance on the area, it’s only had one amazing brand so far, bitcoin,” said Court. “The rest, for a consumer, is very difficult to understand and access. It’s still really early, but I’ve got no doubt that there will be some things emerging, particularly around the idea of ‘invisible money.'”

Jumia, DHL, and Alibaba will face off in African ecommerce 2.0

The business of selling consumer goods and services online is a relatively young endeavor across Africa, but ecommerce is set to boom.

Over the last eight years, the sector has seen its first phase of big VC fundings, startup duels and attrition.

To date, scaling e-commerce in Africa has straddled the line of challenge and opportunity, perhaps more than any other market in the world. Across major African economies, many of the requisites for online retail — internet access, digital payment adoption, and 3PL delivery options — have been severely lacking.

Still, startups jumped into this market for the chance to digitize a share of Africa’s fast growing consumer spending, expected to top $2 billion by 2025.

African e-commerce 2.0 will include some old and new players, play out across more countries, place more priority on internet services, and see the entry of China.

But before highlighting several things to look out for in the future of digital-retail on the continent, a look back is beneficial.

Jumia vs. Konga

The early years for development of African online shopping largely played out in Nigeria (and to some extent South Africa). Anyone who visited Nigeria from 2012 to 2016 likely saw evidence of one of the continent’s early e-commerce showdowns. Nigeria had its own Coke vs. Pepsi-like duel — a race between ventures Konga and Jumia to out-advertise and out-discount each other in a quest to scale online shopping in Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation.

Traveling in Lagos traffic, large billboards for each startup faced off across the skyline, as their delivery motorcycles buzzed between stopped cars.

Covering each company early on, it appeared a battle of VC attrition. The challenge: who could continue to raise enough capital to absorb the losses of simultaneously capturing and creating an e-commerce market in notoriously difficult conditions.

In addition to the aforementioned challenges, Nigeria also had (and continues to have) shoddy electricity.

Both Konga — founded by Nigerian Sim Shagaya — and Jumia — originally founded by two Nigerians and two Frenchman — were forced to burn capital building fulfillment operations most e-commerce startups source to third parties.

That included their own delivery and payment services (KongaPay and JumiaPay). In addition to sales of goods from mobile-phones to diapers, both startups also began experimenting with verticals for internet based services, such as food-delivery and classifieds.

While Jumia and Konga were competing in Nigeria, there was another VC driven race for e-commerce playing out in South Africa — the continent’s second largest and most advanced economy.

E-tailers Takealot and Kalahari had been jockeying for market share since 2011 after raising capital in the hundreds of millions of dollars from investors Naspers and U.S. fund Tiger Global Management.

So how did things turn out in West and Southern Africa? In 2014, the lead investor of a flailing Kalahari — Naspers — facilitated a merger with Takealot (that was more of an acquisition). They nixed the Kalahari brand in 2016 and bought out Takelot’s largest investor, Tiger Global, in 2018. Takealot is now South Africa’s leading e-commerce site by market share, but only operates in one country.

In Nigeria, by 2016 Jumia had outpaced its rival Konga in Alexa ratings (6 vs 14), while out-raising Konga (with backing of Goldman Sachs) to become Africa’s first VC backed, startup unicorn. By early 2018, Konga was purchased in a distressed acquisition and faded away as a competitor to Jumia.

Jumia went on to expand online goods and services verticals into 14 Africa countries (though it recently exited a few) and in April 2019 raised over $200 million in an NYSE IPO — the first on a major exchange for a VC-backed startup operating in Africa.

Jumia’s had bumpy road since going public — losing significant share-value after a short-sell attack earlier in 2019 — but the continent’s leading e-commerce company still has heap of capital and generates $100 million in revenues (even with losses).

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.

No Libra style digital currencies without rules, say EU finance ministers

European Union finance ministers have agreed a defacto ban on the launch in the region of so-called global ‘stablecoins’ such as Facebook’s planned Libra digital currency until the bloc has a common approach to regulation that can mitigate the risks posed by the technology.

In a joint statement the European Council and Commission write that “no global ‘stablecoin’ arrangement should begin operation in the European Union until the legal, regulatory and oversight challenges and risks have been adequately identified and addressed”.

The statement includes recognition of potential benefits of the crypto technology, such as cheaper and faster payments across borders, but says they pose “multifaceted challenges and risks related for example to consumer protection, privacy, taxation, cyber security and operational resilience, money laundering, terrorism financing, market integrity, governance and legal certainty”.

“When a ‘stablecoin’ initiative has the potential to reach a global scale, these concerns are likely to be amplified and new potential risks to monetary sovereignty, monetary policy, the safety and efficiency of payment systems, financial stability, and fair competition can arise,” they add.

All options are being left open to ensure effective regulation, per the statement, with ministers and commissioners stating this should include “any measures to prevent the creation of unmanageable risks by certain global “stablecoins”.”

The new European Commission is already working on a regulation for global stablecoins, per Reuters.

In a speech at a press conference, Commission VP Valdis Dombrovskis, said: “Today the Ecofin endorsed a joint statement with the Commission on stablecoins. These are part of a much broader universe of crypto assets. If we properly address the risks, innovation around crypto assets has the potential to play a positive role for investors, consumers and the efficiency of our financial system.

“A number of Member States like France, Germany or Malta introduced national crypto asset laws, but most people agree with the advice of the European Supervisory Authorities that these markets go beyond borders and so we need a common European framework.

“We will now move to implement this advice. We will launch a public consultation very shortly, before the end of the year.”

The joint statement also hits out at the lack of legal clarity around some major global projects in this area — which looks like a tacit reference to Facebook’s Libra project (though the text does not include any named entities).

“Some recent projects of global dimension have provided insufficient information on how precisely they intend to manage risks and operate their business. This lack of adequate information makes it very difficult to reach definitive conclusions on whether and how the existing EU regulatory framework applies. Entities that intend to issue ‘stablecoins’, or carry out other activities involving ‘stablecoins’ in the EU should provide full and adequate information urgently to allow for a proper assessment against the applicable existing rules,” they warn.

Facebook’s Libra project was only announced this summer — with a slated launch of the first half of 2020 — but was quickly dealt major blows by the speedy departure of key founder members from the vehicle set up to steer the initiative, as giants including Visa, Stripe and eBay apparently took fright at the regulatory backlash. Though you’d never know it from reading the Libra Association PR.

One perhaps unintended effective of Facebook’s grand design on disrupting global financial systems is to amp up pressure on traditional payment providers to innovate and improve their offerings for consumers.

EU ministers write that the emergence of stablecoin initiatives “highlight the importance of continuous improvements to payment arrangements in order to meet market and consumer expectations for convenient, fast, efficient and inexpensive payments – especially cross-border”.

“While European payment systems have already made significant progress, European payment actors, including payment services providers, also have a key role to play in this respect,” they continue. “We note that the ECB and other central banks and national competent authorities will explore further the ongoing digital transformation of the payment system and, in particular, the consequences of initiatives such as ‘stablecoins’. We welcome that central banks in cooperation with other relevant authorities continue to assess the costs and benefits of central bank digital currencies as well as engage with European payment actors regarding the role of the private sector in meeting expectations for efficient, fast and inexpensive cross-border payments.”

Vinted, the second-hand clothes marketplace, raises $141M at a $1B+ valuation

The market for second-hand clothes — the “circular economy” as it’s sometimes called — has been on the rise in the last several years, fuelled by economic crunches, a desire to make more responsible and less wasteful fashion choices, and a wave of digital platforms that are bringing the selling and buying of used clothes outside the charity shop. Today, one of the bigger companies in Europe working in the third of these areas is announcing a huge round of funding to double down on the trend.

Vinted, a site where consumers can sell and buy second-hand fashion, has raised €128 million (around $140.9 million) in a round that is being led by Lightspeed Venture Partners, with previous backers Sprints Capital, Insight Venture Partners, Accel and Burda Principal Investments also participating.

With this investment, the startup — founded and headquartered out of Vilnius, Lithuania — has passed a valuation of $1 billion (it is not specifying an exact amount), making it one of the biggest startups to come out of the country (but not the Baltics’ first unicorn… Estonian Uber competitor Bolt, formerly known as Taxify, is also valued at over $1 billion.)

The company is going to use the money to continue expanding in Europe, and building out more features on its platform to improve the buying and selling process, while sticking to its goal of providing a platform for consumers to list and buy used fashion.

“We want to make sure we don’t have new products,” CEO Thomas Plantenga said in an interview earlier. “All our sellers are regular people.” Some 75% of Vinted’s customers have never bought or sold second hand clothes in their lives before coming to the platform, he added. “The stigma is no longer there.”

Vinted’s growth comes on the heels of a remarkable turnaround for the startup. Founded in 2008 by Milda Mitkute and Justas Janauskas as a way to help Mitkute clear out here wardrobe before a house move, the company expanded fast, but at a price: by 2016, it was close to running out of money and business had slowed down to a crawl. Investors brought in Plantenga to turn it around.

“We changed the business model in 2016 to make the costs as low as possible for users to list clothes,” Pantenga said today. “That produced a dramatic change in our growth trajectory.”

The company, more specifically, went through some drastic changes. First, it clawed back a lot of its pricey international expansion strategy (and along with that a lot of the costs associated with it); and second, it removed all listing fees to encourage more people to list. Now, Vinted charges a 5% commission only if you conduct transactions on Vinted itself, bundling in buyer protection and shipping to sweeten the deal. (You can still post, sell and buy for free if you pay offline but you don’t get those perks.)

The turnaround worked, and the company bounced back, and two years later, in 2018, it went on to raise €50 million. Today, Vinted has some 180 million products live on its platform, 25 million registered users in 12 markets in Europe (but not the US) and 300 employees. It expects to sell €1.3 billion in clothes in 2019, has seen sales grow 4x in the last 17 months.

From fast fashion to fashion that lasts

Vinted’s rise has matched a wider trend in the region.

Europe is the home to some of the world’s biggest “fast fashion” businesses: companies like H&M, Zara and Primark have built huge brands around making quick copies of the hottest styles off the fashion presses, and selling them for prices that will not break the bank (or at least, no more than you might have previously paid to buy a pair of average jeans on the discount rack of a Gap).

But it turns out that it’s also home to a very thriving market in second-hand clothes. One estimate has it that two out of every three Europeans has bought a second-hand good, and 6 out of 10 have sold their belongings using platforms dedicated to second-hand trade.

Even as the company continues to hold back on expanding into the US — perhaps burned a little too much by its previous efforts there; or simply aware of the wide competition from the likes of Ebay, OfferUp, Letgo, Poshmark, and many more — Vinted’s growth in Europe has caught the eye of investors in the that market.

“At Lightspeed, we look for outlier management teams building generational companies. We’ve been impressed by the team’s ability to build an incredible product and value proposition for their community, and adapt and expand their business along the way,” said Brad Twohig, a partner at Lightspeed. “Vinted is defining its market and has built a global brand in C2C commerce and communities. We’re proud to partner with Vinted and leverage our global platform and resources to help them continue to build on their success and achieve their goals.”

While charity shops have traditionally dominated this market, sites like eBay, followed by a secondary wave of platforms like Vinted and another competitor in this space, Depop, have made selling and buying items into an established, low-barrier business.

All the same, given that extending the life of one’s goods feeds into a do-good ethos, it’s noticeable to me that Vinted hasn’t quite replaced the Salvation Army: there is virtually no way to sell on Vinted and give the proceeds to charity, if you so choose.

It appears that this might be something Vinted will try to address in the future.

“We are looking at making fashion circular for our users so that clothing that they bought doesn’t go to waste,” Plantenga said. “[Giving proceeds to charity] is super interesting and we should explore it as part of our growth story. To be honest, those things have been in the background and not developed because we’ve just been trying to keep up with everything, but the idea fits into our culture.”

E-commerce — in particular startups nipping at the heels of bigger players like Amazon and eBay by focusing on specific areas of the market that aren’t as well served by them — has had a bumper day in Europe, after brick-and-mortar marketplace Trouva earlier today also raised a sizeable round.

Why each Libra member’s mutiny hurts Facebook

There’s a strategic cost to the defection of Visa, Stripe, eBay, and more from the Facebook -led cryptocurrency Libra Association . They’re not just names dropping off a list. Each potentially made Libra more useful, ubiquitous, or reputable. Now they could become obstacles to the token’s launch or growth.

Fearing regulators’ inquiries not just into their Libra involvement but the rest of their businesses, these companies are pulling out at least for now. None had made precise commitments to integrating Libra into their products, and they’ve said they could still get involved later. But their exit clouds the project’s future and leaves Facebook to absorb more of the blowback.

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Here’s what each of the departing Libra Association members brought to the table and how they could spawn new challenges for the cryptocurrency:

Visa

With one of most widely-accepted payment methods, Visa could have helped make Libra universally spendable. It’s also one of the most prestigious names in finance, lending deep credibility to the project. Visa’s departure leaves Libra looking more like tech companies barging into payments, conjuring fears of their move fast, break things approach that could cause financial ruin if Libra runs into problems. It also could leave Libra with a much weaker presence in brick-and-mortar shops. No one will want to own a cryptocurrency that doesn’t appreciate in value and can’t be easily spent.

MasterCard

The involvement of MasterCard alongside Visa made Libra look like the incumbents adapting to modern technologies. This made it less threatening, and gave cryptocurrency an air of inevitability. MasterCard would have also brought an even wider network of locations where Libra could one day be used for payment. Now MasterCard and Visa might actively work against Libra to prevent their payment methods being made obsolete by Libra and its elimination of transaction fees through the blockchain. Two of Libras biggest allies could become its biggest foes.

PayPal

Facebook has repeatedly told regulators that its Calibra app plus integrations into Messenger and WhatsApp would not be the only Libra wallets, pointing to PayPal . Facebook’s head of Libra David Marcus told Congress when asked about the social network’s outsized power to exploit Libra through its own Calibra wallet that “you have companies like PayPal and others that will, of course, collaborate, but [also] compete with us”. Now Facebook won’t have a scaled payment method it doesn’t own to point to as a likely alternative for people who don’t want to trust Facebook’s Calibra, Messenger, or WhatsApp to be their Libra wallet. The Libra Association also loses PayPal’s enormous network of online merchants that accept it, plus the inroad to integration into its peer-to-peer payback app Venmo. PayPal convinced the mainstream public to trust online payments — the exact kind of trust Facebook desperately needs. The fact that Marcus was also the former president of PayPal but couldn’t keep it in the association raises concerns about the group’s coalition-building prowess.

Stripe

Stripe’s enormous popularity with ecommerce vendors made it a valuable Libra Association member. Together with PayPal, Stripe facilitates a huge portion of online transactions outside of China. Its ease of integration made it a top pick for developers Facebook surely hoped would build atop Libra. Stripe’s exit destroys a critical bridge to the fintech startup ecosystem that could have helped institutionalize Libra. Now the association will have to work on engineering payment widgets from scratch without Stripe’s assistance, which could slow adoption if it ever launches.

There’s a clear reason all these payment processors bailed. Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) wrote a letter to Visa, MasterCard, and Stripe’s CEOs this week explaining that “If you take this on, you can expect a high level of scrutiny from regulators not only on Libra-related activities, but on all payment activities.”

eBay

As one of the longest standing ecommerce companies, eBay bolstered beliefs that Libra could be used to power transactions between untrusted strangers without a costly middleman. It might have also put Libra into practice on one of the top western online marketplaces outside of Amazon. Without destinations like eBay onboard, average netizens will have fewer opportunities to be exposed to Libra’s potential to eliminate transaction fees.

Mercado Pago

One of the lesser-known Libra Association members, Mercado Pago helps merchants receive payments via email or in installments. The idea of connecting financially underserved populations has been core to Facebook’s pitch for why Libra should exist. The Libra Association has been light on the details of how exactly it serves this demographic, relying on the inclusion of partners like Mercado Pago to help it figure this out later. Mercado Pago’s departure leaves Libra looking more like a financial power grab rather than a tool to assist the disadvantaged.

Who’s Left?

On Monday, the remaining Libra Association members will meet to finalize the initial member list, elect a board, and create a charter to govern the project. This forced the hands of the companies above, who had their last chance to depart this week before being pulled deeper into Libra.

Facebook Currency Hearing

UNITED STATES – JULY 16: David Marcus, head of Facebook’s Calibra digital wallet service, prepares to testify during the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on “Examining Facebook’s Proposed Digital Currency and Data Privacy Considerations” on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Who’s left includes venture capital firms, ride sharing companies, non-profits, and cryptocurrency companies. They are less tied up with the status quo of payment processing, and therefore had less to lose. The blockchain-specific companies were likely hoping to piggyback on financial giants like Visa to get Libra approved and create more legitimacy for their industry as a whole.

These partners could help fund an ecosystem of Libra developers, create daily use cases, spread the system in the developing world, and push for alliances between Libra and cryptocurrency players. Facebook will need to fight to keep them aboard if it wants to avoid Libra looking like a unilateral disruption of the economy.

For Libra to actually launch, Facebook needs to make serious concessions and divert from its initial vision. Otherwise if it continues to butt heads with regulators, more members could flee. One option floated by Libra Association member Andreessen Horowitz’s a16z Crypto partner Chris Dixon was for Libra to be denominated in US dollars instead of a basket of international currencies. That might lessen fears that Libra intends to compete directly with the dollar.

It’s become apparent that Facebook will not get its ideal cryptocurrency out the door. This is the brand tax of 100 scandals coming back to bite it. Now the best it can hope for is to get even a watered-down version launched, prove it can actually help the underbanked, and then hope to convince regulators it’s well-intentioned.

Devin Wenig steps down as eBay CEO

eBay this morning announced that Devin Wenig has stepped down from the role of CEO. A former executive at Reuters, Wenig joined the company eight years ago this month as president of its global market place division. He was appointed to the CEO role in July 2015, following eBay’s spinoff of PayPal.

“Devin has been a tireless advocate for driving improvement in the business, particularly in leading the Company forward after the PayPal spinoff,” Chairman of the Board Thomas Tierney said in a release tied to the news. “Indeed, eBay is stronger today than it was four years ago. Notwithstanding this progress, given a number of considerations, both Devin and the board believe that a new CEO is best for the company at this time.”

Scott Schenkel, the company’s Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer has been appointed interim CEO by eBay’s board. Schenkel has been with the company for 12 years, having previously spent several years in management at GE. eBay says it will “consider internal and external candidates” as it searches for someone to fill the position on a permanent basis.

The move comes amid turmoil at the company. Earlier this year, investors Elliott Management suggested key structural changes to help reinvigorate a floundering company.  “Today eBay suffers from an inefficient organizational structure, wasteful spend and a misallocation of resources,” it wrote in a letter at the time. eBay went through layoffs and restructuring, in the wake of the letter.

As part of these new changes up top, eBay will be appointing Vice President, Global Financial Planning and Analysis, Andy Cring, to the position of interim CFO.

Is Knotel poised to turn WeWork from a Unicorn into an Icarus?

The day of reckoning for the ‘flexible office space as a startup’ is coming, and it’s coming up fast. WeWork’s IPO filing has fired the starting gun on the race to become the game-changer both in the future of property and real estate but also the future of how we live and work. As Churchill once said, ‘we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us’.

Until recently WeWork was the ruler by which other flexible space startups were measured, but questions are now being asked if it deserves its valuation. The profitable IWG plc, formerly Regus, has been a business providing serviced offices, virtual offices, meeting rooms, and the rest, for years and yet WeWork is valued by ten times more.

That’s not to mention how it exposes landlords to $40 billion in rent commitments, something which a few of them are starting to feel rather nervous about.

Some analysts even say WeWork’s IPO is a ‘masterpiece of obfuscation’

Facebook still full of groups trading fake reviews, says consumer group

Facebook has failed to clean up the brisk trade in fake product reviews taking place on its platform, an investigation by the consumer association Which? has found.

In June both Facebook and eBay were warned by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) they needed to do more to tackle the sale of fake product reviews. On eBay sellers were offering batches of five-star product reviews in exchange for cash, while Facebook’s platform was found hosting multiple groups were members solicited writers of fake reviews in exchange for free products or cash (or both).

A follow-up look at the two platforms by Which? has found a “significant improvement” in the number of eBay listings selling five-star reviews — with the group saying it found just one listing selling five-star reviews after the CMA’s intervention.

But little appears to have been done to prevent Facebook groups trading in fake reviews — with Which? finding dozens of Facebook groups that it said “continue to encourage incentivised reviews on a huge scale”.

Here’s a sample ad we found doing a ten-second search of Facebook groups… (one of a few we saw that specify they’re after US reviewers)

Screenshot 2019 08 06 at 09.53.19

Which? says it found more than 55,000 new posts across just nine Facebook groups trading fake reviews in July, which it said were generating hundreds “or even thousands” of posts per day.

It points out the true figure is likely to be higher because Facebook caps the number of posts it quantifies at 10,000 (and three of the ten groups had hit that ceiling).

Which? also found Facebook groups trading fake reviews that had sharply increased their membership over a 30-day period, adding that it was “disconcertingly easy to find dozens of suspicious-looking groups in minutes”.

We also found a quick search of Facebook’s platform instantly serves a selection of groups soliciting product reviews…

Screenshot 2019 08 06 at 09.51.09

Which? says looked in detail at ten groups (it doesn’t name the groups), all of which contained the word ‘Amazon’ in their group name, finding that all of them had seen their membership rise over a 30-day period — with some seeing big spikes in members.

“One Facebook group tripled its membership over a 30-day period, while another (which was first started in April 2018) saw member numbers double to more than 5,000,” it writes. “One group had more than 10,000 members after 4,300 people joined it in a month — a 75% increase, despite the group existing since April 2017.”

Which? speculates that the surge in Facebook group members could be a direct result of eBay cracking down on fake reviews sellers on its own platform.

“In total, the 10 [Facebook] groups had a staggering 105,669 members on 1 August, compared with a membership of 85,647 just 30 days prior to that — representing an increase of nearly 19%,” it adds.

Across the ten groups it says there were more than 3,500 new posts promoting inventivised reviews in a single day. Which? also notes that Facebook’s algorithm regularly recommended similar groups to those that appeared to be trading in fake reviews — on the ‘suggested for you’ page.

It also says it found admins of groups it joined listing alternative groups to join in case the original is shut down.

Commenting in a statement, Natalie Hitchins, Which?’s head of products and services, said: ‘Our latest findings demonstrate that Facebook has systematically failed to take action while its platform continues to be plagued with fake review groups generating thousands of posts a day.

“It is deeply concerning that the company continues to leave customers exposed to poor-quality or unsafe products boosted by misleading and disingenuous reviews. Facebook must immediately take steps to not only address the groups that are reported to it, but also proactively identify and shut down other groups, and put measures in place to prevent more from appearing in the future.”

“The CMA must now consider enforcement action to ensure that more is being done to protect people from being misled online. Which? will be monitoring the situation closely and piling on the pressure to banish these fake review groups,” she added.

Responding to Which?‘s findings in a statement, CMA senior director George Lusty said: “It is unacceptable that Facebook groups promoting fake reviews seem to be reappearing. Facebook must take effective steps to deal with this problem by quickly removing the material and stop it from resurfacing.”

“This is just the start – we’ll be doing more to tackle fake and misleading online reviews,” he added. “Lots of us rely on reviews when shopping online to decide what to buy. It is important that people are able to trust they are genuine, rather than something someone has been paid to write.”

In a statement Facebook claimed it has removed 9 out of ten of the groups Which? reported to it and claimed to be “investigating the remaining group”.

“We don’t allow people to use Facebook to facilitate or encourage false reviews,” it added. “We continue to improve our tools to proactively prevent this kind of abuse, including investing in technology and increasing the size of our safety and security team to 30,000.”

Libra, Facebook’s global digital currency plan, is fuzzy on privacy, watchdogs warn

Privacy commissioners from the Americas, Europe, Africa and Australasia have put their names to a joint statement raising concerns about a lack of clarity from Facebook over how data protection safeguards will be baked into its planned cryptocurrency project, Libra.

Facebook officially unveiled its big bet to build a global digital currency using blockchain technology in June, steered by a Libra Association with Facebook as a founding member. Other founding members include payment and tech giants such as Mastercard, PayPal, Uber, Lyft, eBay, VC firms including Andreessen Horowitz, Thrive Capital and Union Square Ventures, and not-for-profits such as Kiva and Mercy Corps.

At the same time Facebook announced a new subsidiary of its own business, Calibra, which it said will create financial services for the Libra network, including offering a standalone wallet app that it expects to bake into its messaging apps, Messenger and WhatsApp, next year — raising concerns it could quickly gain a monopolistic hold over what’s being couched as an ‘open’ digital currency network, given the dominance of the associated social platforms where it intends to seed its own wallet.

In its official blog post hyping Calibra Facebook avoided any talk of how much market power it might wield via its ability to promote the wallet to its existing 2.2BN+ global users, but it did touch on privacy — writing “we’ll also take steps to protect your privacy” by claiming it would not share “account information or financial data with Facebook or any third party without customer consent”.

Except for when it admitted it would; the same paragraph states there will be “limited cases” when it may share user data. These cases will “reflect our need to keep people safe, comply with the law and provide basic functionality to the people who use Calibra”, the blog adds. (A Calibra Customer Commitment provides little more detail than a few sample instances, such as “preventing fraud and criminal activity”.)

All of that might sound reassuring enough on the surface but Facebook has used the fuzzy notion of needing to keep its users ‘safe’ as an umbrella justification for tracking non-Facebook users across the entire mainstream Internet, for example.

So the devil really is in the granular detail of anything the company claims it will and won’t do.

Hence the lack of comprehensive details about Libra’s approach to privacy and data protection is causing professional watchdogs around the world to worry.

“As representatives of the global community of data protection and privacy enforcement authorities, collectively responsible for promoting the privacy of many millions of people around the world, we are joining together to express our shared concerns about the privacy risks posed by the Libra digital currency and infrastructure,” they write. “Other authorities and democratic lawmakers have expressed concerns about this initiative. These risks are not limited to financial privacy, since the involvement of Facebook Inc., and its expansive categories of data collection on hundreds of millions of users, raises additional concerns. Data protection authorities will also work closely with other regulators.”

Among the commissioners signing the statement is the FTC’s Rohit Chopra: One of two commissioners at the US Federal Trade Commission who dissented from the $5BN settlement order that was passed by a 3:2 vote last month

Also raising concerns about Facebook’s transparency about how Libra will comply with privacy laws and expectations in multiple jurisdictions around the world are: Canada’s privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien; the European Union’s data protection supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli; UK Information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham; Albania’s information and data protection commissioner, Besnik Dervishi; the president of the Commission for Information Technology and Civil Liberties for Burkina Faso, Marguerite Ouedraogo Bonane; and Australia’s information and privacy commissioner, Angelene Falk.

In the joint statement — on what they describe as “global privacy expectations of the Libra network” — they write:

In today’s digital age, it is critical that organisations are transparent and accountable for their personal information handling practices. Good privacy governance and privacy by design are key enablers for innovation and protecting data – they are not mutually exclusive. To date, while Facebook and Calibra have made broad public statements about privacy, they have failed to specifically address the information handling practices that will be in place to secure and protect personal information. Additionally, given the current plans for a rapid implementation of Libra and Calibra, we are surprised and concerned that this further detail is not yet available. The involvement of Facebook Inc. as a founding member of the Libra Association has the potential to drive rapid uptake by consumers around the globe, including in countries which may not yet have data protection laws in place. Once the Libra Network goes live, it may instantly become the custodian of millions of people’s personal information. This combination of vast reserves of personal information with financial information and cryptocurrency amplifies our privacy concerns about the Libra Network’s design and data sharing arrangements.

We’ve pasted the list of questions they’re putting to the Libra Network below — which they specify is “non-exhaustive”, saying individual agencies may follow up with more “as the proposals and service offering develops”.

Among the details they’re seeking answers to is clarity on what users personal data will be used for and how users will be able to control what their data is used for.

The risk of dark patterns being used to weaken and undermine users’ privacy is another stated concern.

Where user data is shared the commissioners are also seeking clarity on the types of data and the de-identification techniques that will be used — on the latter researchers have demonstrated for years that just a handful of data points can be used to re-identify credit card users from an ‘anonymous’ data-set of transactions, for example.

Here’s the full list of questions being put to the Libra Network:

  • 1. How can global data protection and privacy enforcement authorities be confident that the Libra Network has robust measures to protect the personal information of network users? In particular, how will the Libra Network ensure that its participants will:

    • a. provide clear information about how personal information will be used (including the use of profiling and algorithms, and the sharing of personal information between members of the Libra Network and any third parties) to allow users to provide specific and informed consent where appropriate;
    • b. create privacy-protective default settings that do not use nudge techniques or “dark patterns” to encourage people to share personal data with third parties or weaken their privacy protections;
    • c. ensure that privacy control settings are prominent and easy to use;
    • d. collect and process only the minimum amount of personal information necessary to achieve the identified purpose of the product or service, and ensure the lawfulness of the processing;
    • e. ensure that all personal data is adequately protected; and
    • f. give people simple procedures for exercising their privacy rights, including deleting their accounts, and honouring their requests in a timely way.
  • 2. How will the Libra Network incorporate privacy by design principles in the development of its infrastructure?

  • 3. How will the Libra Association ensure that all processors of data within the Libra Network are identified, and are compliant with their respective data protection obligations?

  • 4. How does the Libra Network plan to undertake data protection impact assessments, and how will the Libra Network ensure these assessments are considered on an ongoing basis?

  • 5. How will the Libra Network ensure that its data protection and privacy policies, standards and controls apply consistently across the Libra Network’s operations in all jurisdictions?

  • 6. Where data is shared amongst Libra Network members:

    • a. what data elements will be involved?

    • b. to what extent will it be de-identified, and what method will be used to achieve de-identification?
      c. how will Libra Network ensure that data is not re-identified, including by use of enforceable contractual commitments with those with whom data is shared?

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment.