eBay reportedly getting close to selling its classified-ads unit to Adevinta

eBay is reportedly getting close to a deal to sell its classified-ads business to Adevinta, a Norwegian company that runs online marketplaces across Europe and Latin America. According to a Wall Street Journal report, if the negotiations are successful, a cash and stock deal could be announced as soon as Monday. The transaction is expected to value eBay’s classified business at about $8 billion.

The Wall Street Journal first reported in February that eBay was planning to sell off its classifieds business, with prospective buyers named at that time including private equity firms TPG and Blackstone Group, Naspers, and German publisher Axel Springer SE.

More recently, Prosus NV, an Amsterdam-based investment firm that is controlled by Naspers, emerged as a contender, but Bloomberg reported over the weekend that negotiations hit a bump because eBay wants to maintain a stake in the classifieds business after selling it.

Activist shareholders Elliot Management and Starboard Value LP have pushed eBay to sell off non-core business units to focus on its marketplace, resulting in the sale of StubHub to viagogo for more than $4 billion last year and the appointment of a new chief executive officer.

Ebay’s classifieds division operates mostly outside of the United States, including in Canada, Europe, Africa, Australia and Mexico. If Adevinta ends up acquiring it, it can expand its international portfolio of peer-to-peer e-commerce platforms.

An Adevinta representative told TechCrunch the company had no comment on the reported negotiations. TechCrunch has also reached out to eBay.

Ebay said in its last quarterly earnings report, issued in April, that it was “explor[ing] potential value-creating alternatives for its Classifieds business, is holding active discussions with multiple parties and anticipates having an update by the middle of the year.”

During the first quarter of this year, eBay’s main marketplace business generated $2.1 billion in revenue, down, while its classifieds business saw $248 million in revenue. In 2019, the classifieds business made $1.1 billion in revenue, versus $7.6 billion for eBay Marketplace, which is weathering competition from larger online rivals like Amazon.

Hong Kong fintech Qupital partners with eBay to provide financing for sellers

Qupital, a trade financing platform, announced today that it will partner with eBay as one of its officially recommended Hong Kong financing service providers. In today’s announcement, Qupital said it will provide offshore financing services, including working capital, to eBay sellers in China through QiaoYiDai, its main product.

The agreement with eBay means Qupital will be able to monitor the real-time data of eBay sellers who apply for their services, which the fintech startup says will enable it to assess credit applications within three days, on average, and settle drawdown requests in less than a day.

Founded in 2016 and based in Hong Kong, Qupital raised a $15 million Series A last year led by strategic investor CreditEase FinTech Investment Fund, with participation from Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund and MindWorks Ventures.

Qupital is one of a growing roster of fintech companies in Asia—Aspire and First Circle are a couple other examples—that provide loans, credit lines and services to online sellers, SMBs and other businesses who often have trouble obtaining working capital from traditional lenders like banks.

Instead of relying on financial statements, these companies use data analytics to assess creditworthiness. In QiaoYiDai’s case, this means looking at “e-commerce statistics and big data, including the credibility of [applicants’] online shops, historical transaction data, rating data, refund and exchange rates of goods, among a plethora of other data points,” Qupital said in its announcement.

On average, Qiaoyidai provides an average credit limit of $150,000, with a maximum credit line of up to $1.5 million for qualifying sellers.

More e-commerce vendors in China are turning to social media as their main channels for reaching buyers (for example, Alibaba has partnerships with Weibo and Douyin and rival JD.com recently struck a strategic partnership with Kuaishou, while TikTok began testing social commerce last year), and having quick, integrated access to financing tools may convince vendors to stick with legacy e-commerce platforms like eBay, especially for cross-border sellers.

Affirming the position of tech advocates, Supreme Court overturns Trump’s termination of DACA

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that President Donald Trump’s administration unlawfully ended the federal policy providing temporary legal status for immigrants who came to the country as children.

The decision, issued Thursday, called the termination of the Obama-era policy known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals “arbitrary and capricious.” As a result of its ruling, nearly 640,000 people living in the United States are now temporarily protected from deportation.

While a blow to the Trump Administration, the ruling is sure to be hailed nearly unanimously by the tech industry and its leaders, who had come out strongly in favor of the policy in the days leading up to its termination by the current President and his advisors.

At the beginning of 2018, many of tech’s most prominent executives, including the CEOs of Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google, joined more than 100 American business leaders in signing an open letter asking Congress to take action on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program before it expired in March.

Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Sundar Pichai who made a full throated defense of the policy and pleaded with Congress to pass legislation ensuring that Dreamers, or undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children and were granted approval by the program, can continue to live and work in the country without risk of deportation.

At the time, those executives said the decision to end the program could potentially cost the U.S. economy as much as $215 billion.

In a 2017 tweet, Tim Cook noted that Apple employed roughly 250 of the company’s employees were “Dreamers”.

The list of tech executives who came out to support the DACA initiative is long. It included: IBM CEO Ginni Rometty; Brad Smith, the president and chief legal officer of Microsoft; Hewlett-Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman; and CEOs or other leading executives of AT&T, Dropbox, Upwork, Cisco Systems, Salesforce.com, LinkedIn, Intel, Warby Parker, Uber, Airbnb, Slack, Box, Twitter, PayPal, Code.org, Lyft, Etsy, AdRoll, eBay, StitchCrew, SurveyMonkey, DoorDash, Verizon (the parent company of Verizon Media Group, which owns TechCrunch).

At the heart of the court’s ruling is the majority view that Department of Homeland Security officials didn’t provide a strong enough reason to terminate the program in September 2017. Now, the issue of immigration status gets punted back to the White House and Congress to address.

As the Boston Globe noted in a recent article, the majority decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts did not determine whether the Obama-era policy or its revocation were correct, just that the DHS didn’t make a strong enough case to end the policy.

“We address only whether the agency complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action,” Roberts wrote. 

While the ruling from the Supreme Court is some good news for the population of “dreamers,” the question of their citizenship status in the country is far from settled. And the U.S. government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has basically consisted of freezing as much of the nation’s immigration apparatus as possible.

An Executive Order in late April froze the green card process for would-be immigrants, and the administration was rumored to be considering a ban on temporary workers under H1-B visas as well.

The President has, indeed, ramped up the crackdown with strict border control policies and other measures to curb both legal and illegal immigration. 

More than 800,000 people joined the workforce as a result of the 2012 program crafted by the Obama administration. DACA allows anyone under 30 to apply for protection from deportation or legal action on their immigration cases if they were younger than 16 when they were brought to the US, had not committed a crime, and were either working or in school.

In response to the Supreme Court decision, the President tweeted “Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?”

 

 

US attorney details eBay employees’ harassment campaign, including live roaches and a pig fetus

U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling held a press conference this morning detailing ongoing investigations into a bizarre alleged cyberstalking campaign against a couple based in Natick, Massachusetts. Six former eBay employees face charges in connection with the events targeting a writer and her husband.

The targeted writer published a blog sometimes critical of eBay and other e-commerce sites. In apparent retaliation, executives and other staff members allegedly hatched a targeted harassment campaign that included setting up fake social network accounts and a string of upsetting deliveries that reads like the prop list from a “Hellraiser” sequel.

According to Lelling, “The boxes included: fly larvae and live spiders; a box of live cockroaches; a sympathy wreath on the occasion of a dead loved one; a book of advice on how to survive the death of a spouse; pornography mailed to their neighbors but in the couple’s names; a Halloween mask featuring the face of a bloody pig and a pig fetus that was ordered but after an inquiry from the supplier thankfully was never sent.”

Two former executives were charged this morning, along with four other employees; eBay acknowledged the situation in a press release this morning. The company was quick to explain that neither it nor any current employees have been indicted. Those involved have since been fired. EBay says it held off on addressing the situation publicly, so as to not interfere with the ongoing investigation.

From Lelling’s description, however, the situation appears to go even higher. He explained that the actions were not rogue. Instead, “the directive to do something about this goes pretty high up the chain within eBay.”

In fact, the situation appears to have played a role in Devin Wenig’s decision to step down from the company back in September. While not disclosed in the original announcement for the reasons mentioned above, eBay notes:

The Company noted that the internal investigation also examined what role, if any, the Company’s CEO at the time of the incident, Devin Wenig, may have had in this matter. The internal investigation found that, while Mr. Wenig’s communications were inappropriate, there was no evidence that he knew in advance about or authorized the actions that were later directed toward the blogger and her husband. However, as the Company previously announced, there were a number of considerations leading to his departure from the Company.

‘The money is still there,’ says APX managing director Jörg Rheinboldt

APX is an early-stage accelerator in Berlin, but it’s not quite your average accelerator — it’s essentially a joint venture between giant European publishing house Axel Springer and Porsche, the German automaker. Earlier this month, we sat down with APX managing director Jörg Rheinboldt to discuss what makes APX different and how it’s weathering the coronavirus pandemic.

Rheinboldt has quite a bit of experience as both an entrepreneur and investor. He co-founded Alando.de, which was acquired by eBay in 1999 and donation platform betterplace.org in 2007. In 2013, he became CEO of Axel Springer Plug and Play and during his time as an investor, he put money into companies like N26, Zizoo, Blogfoster and Careship.

“We started APX because Plug and Play wanted to become more of a platform for matchmaking between startups and corporates,” Rheinboldt said when I asked him about the project’s origin. “We, the team, enjoyed investing in early-stage companies a lot and Axel Springer also enjoyed investing in early-stage startups a lot. So we decided to stop investing in new companies Axel Springer Plug and Play. We had invested in 102 companies — and focus[ed] on finding interesting teams to invest in with a new company that we needed to found.”

Image Credits: Dominik Tryba

Rheinboldt took this discussion to his boss, Mathias Döpfner, the current CEO of Axel Springer, who encouraged him to find another shareholder. “If it’s only us, you might have to do what we want — and maybe you don’t want that,” he said Döpfner told him. In looking for a partner, Rheinboldt approached the Porsche family, which he had met at some of his previous investor events. The family was looking to diversify its portfolio, so after a few more meetings, including a presentation at Porsche’s leadership summit, the two companies decided to get into this business together.

One interesting thing Rheinboldt noted — and this isn’t so much about the Porsche family as a general observation — is that family offices are often resistant to getting into venture capital, at least in Germany.

Nigeria’s Helium Health raises $10M Series A for Africa expansion

Nigerian startup Helium Health sits in a good position during a difficult period, according to its co-founder.

The Lagos based healthtech venture is in the black, has batted away acquisition offers, and just raised a $10 million Series A round, CEO Adegoke Olubusi told TechCrunch.

The startup offers a product suit that digitizes data, formalizes monetization and enables telemedicine for health care systems in Nigeria, Liberia, and Ghana.

Helium plans to use the latest funding round to hire and expand to North and East Africa, including Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Morocco, Olubusi confirmed on a call.

He co-founded the startup in 2016 — with Dimeji Sofowora and Tito Ovia — to bring better delivery of medical services in Nigeria and broader Africa.

“It’s really about tackling three core problems that we see in the healthcare sector in Africa: inefficiency, fragmentation and a lack of data,” said Olubusi.

When he and co-founders Sofowora and Oviato set out doing research for Helium, they noted a data desert on medical info across the continent’s healthcare infrastructure.

“We figured out very quickly that that is a long term problem to solve. And the best way to get the data and access to it is to give simple technology to the providers and let them use it to make their lives more efficient.”

Helium Health has since developed several core product areas for healthcare entities with application for providers, payment, patients, and partners.

It offers tech solutions and developer resources for administration, medical records and financial management. Helium Health has digital payment and credit products for hospitals and insurance providers.

As part of the latest financing, the startup is launching several new products — such as the MyHelium Patient app to facilitate appointments and information sharing between healthcare providers and citizens.

Images Credits: Helium Health

Helium also accelerated deployment of a telemedicine platform in response to the coronavirus hitting Nigeria and the lockdowns that ensued.

“In the last three weeks since we launched we’ve had roughly 360 hospitals sign up, and they’ve had thousands of [online] visits already,” Olubusi said.

Helium Health generates revenues by charging percentages and fees on its products, services and accompanying transactions. Current clients include several hospitals in the West Africa region, such as Paelon Memorial in Lagos.

Helium Health’s model got the attention of the startup’s $10 million Series A backers and Silicon Valley accelerator Y-Combinator — which accepted the startup into its spring 2017 batch.

Global Ventures and Africa Healthcare Masterfund co-led the investment with participation that included Tencent and additional Y-Combinator support.

Global Ventures General Partner Noor Sweid confirmed the Dubai based fund’s co-lead of the round and that the firm will take a Helium Health board seat.

The path of the startup’s CEO —  Adegoke Olubusi — to tech founder passed through the U.S. and traditional corporate roles. He went to Maryland in 2014 to complete an advanced degree in engineering at Johns Hopkins University, then did a stint at Goldman Sachs before landing positions in big tech with eBay and PayPal.

Olubusi found work with big corporates less than stimulating and gravitated to forming his own company and returning to Nigeria.

“When I was at eBay and Goldman I was really bored and I wanted to do something more challenging,” he said. “We thought, ‘why don’t we pick a problem that is a long-term problem in Africa,'” Olubusi explained.

Helium Health founders (L to R) Dimeji Sofowora, Tito Ovia, and Adegoke Olubusi: Image Credits: Helium Health

The founder believes the products Helium Health creates can improve the poor health care stats in countries such as Nigeria — which stands as Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation.

Nigeria also ranked 142nd out of 195 countries on health performance indicators in The Lancet’s 2018 Healthcare Access and Quality Index.

On the dismal stats, “We need more properly run hospitals, and we need more profitable hospitals, health systems and health care providers,” said Olubusi.

Better monetization and organization of hospitals could lure more doctors back to African countries, he believes.

“Half my family are doctors but none of them practice in Nigeria. Everyone’s practicing all over the place, but Nigeria,” Olubusi said.

The founder also sees a more digitized and data driven health care sector as something that can draw more entrepreneurs to African healthtech. Compared to dominant sectors, such as fintech, health related startups in Africa gain a small percentage of the continent’s annual VC haul — only 9.3% by Partech’s 2019 stats.

“There are people who want to invest in the market but they can’t…and founders can’t really tackle a healthcare problem because they don’t know what’s going on,” he said.

As for his venture, Olubusi expects growth even given the precarious economic outlook COVID-19 is creating for countries, such as Nigeria — which is expected to enter recession this year.

The coronavirus and lockdowns are shining a light on the country’s healthcare inadequacies (according to Helium Health’s CEO) that people can’t ignore, including the elite.

“This is the first time they can’t get on their jet and leave so they have to go to the hospitals we have. The system was neglected for the last few decades because people had that [previous] option,” said Olubusi.

“I’m hoping this coronavirus crisis will be a period that forces everyone to rethink what we’re doing [on healthcare].”

That could lead to more business for Helium Health.

The startup doesn’t release financial information but has positive net income. “We do generate revenues in millions of dollars and are profitable,” Olubusi said.

Helium Health has received acquisition offers, but declined them, according to its CEO. Olubusi and team intend to grow the venture to the point where it can list on a major global exchange.

“We know this is the kind of business we can take public, without having to sell,” he said.

eBay Q1 reports sales of $2.374B, active buyers up to 174M in wake of COVID-19

After a quarter in which eBay, tussling with an activist investor, completed the sell-off of its ticketing business StubHub for $4 billion and saw appointed a new CEO after its previous one departed, while also weathering waves of surging demand and dodgy supply resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, today the e-commerce company reported its Q1 earnings after the close of markets.

The company reported revenues of $2.374 billion, down 2% on a year ago, with earnings per share of $0.64 on a GAAP basis and $0.77 non-GAAP, on a continuing operations basis.

This was a mixed result. Analysts on average were expecting $2.38 billion in revenues on earnings per share of $0.72. Ebay itself was expecting sales of between $2.55 billion and $2.60 billion, with GAAP earnings per diluted share from continuing operations in the range of $0.50 – $0.53 and non-GAAP earnings per diluted share from continuing operations in the range of $0.70 – $0.73. 

In other words, eBay missed on sales in terms of analyst average projections, beat their expectations on EPS, and beat both of its own internal targets.

At the time of writing, eBay’s stock was down 7 cents in after-hours trading.

“During these unprecedented times, I am extremely proud of how our team has come together to support one another, our buyers and sellers, our communities and the business,” said Scott Schenkel, eBay’s interim CEO, in the earnings statement. “As we look at Q1, I am pleased that we delivered on all of our commitments for the quarter, with key metrics such as Buyers, GMV and Revenue performing at or better than our expectations. Over the past several months, we have remained focused and clear-eyed about the strategic direction of the company and have driven substantial changes to position the business for sustainable and profitable long-term growth.”

“I appreciate the team’s hard work in the first quarter and their efforts to maintain focus amid so many factors affecting the business and the industry,” said Jamie Iannone, the new permanent CEO that it headhunted from Walmart, in a separate statement. “I’m thrilled to return to eBay this week as CEO and I look forward to building on the positive momentum in the business, continuing to evolve the Company’s strategy and maximizing value for our shareholders.”

As expected, the company — like other e-commerce giants — has seen a boost in buyer demand from the throngs of consumers who are currently being ordered to stay at home, but who still need to buy things, and specifically try to source items that they’re finding a challenge to find in more local stores. eBay noted that active buyers are up by 2% and now total 174 million global active buyers.

Despite that, however, gross merchandise volume (GMV, or total sales volume before any cuts are taken) was $21.3 billion, down 1% on an as-reported basis. We might assume that the decline might have been significantly steeper without the current climate, or that it has at least offset other kinds of declines.

Ebay is on a long-term plan to improve what it keeps from that GMV by way of implementing managed payments, which basically means that it’s handling the payment process for transactions itself.

This comes by way of a deal eBay struck with Adyen some time ago, which replaced a payments agreement it had with former subsidiary PayPal that became less lucrative after PayPal was divested during a previous activist investor tussle.

Managed payments is still a relatively small part of pie for eBay, accounting for a mere $3 billion of GMV for 32,000+ sellers. But it’s expanding, eBay said: it’s being turned on in the U.K., Canada and Australia in July.

Meanwhile, Marketplace — the main eBay business, that is — generated $2.1 billion of revenue, down 1%, while Classifieds saw $248 million of revenue, down 3%.

That Classifieds business is on the block as part of the company’s wider efforts to restructure. “eBay continues to explore potential value-creating alternatives for its Classifieds business, is holding active discussions with multiple parties, and anticipates having an update by the middle of the year,” the company noted. 

The company also handed out $4.0 billion in share buybacks, repurchasing almost 98 million shares, part of a share repurchase plan that will be completed later this year.

However, even with those positives, there is a cloud hanging over many e-commerce businesses, even those that are seeing strong demand.

The reason for this is that the economy is very shaky right now, and we don’t fully know what the coming months will hold, in terms of public health, government rules on how we can move, whether we will have jobs and money to spend. And all of that is playing into how companies like eBay will perform under its new CEO and continuing pressure from its activist investors.

With all that in mind, Ebay also updated its guidance for the next quarter and reiterated figures for the full year. Q2, it expects, will have revenues of between $2.38 billion and $2.48 billion, with GAAP earnings per diluted share from continuing operations in the range of $0.50$0.57 and non-GAAP earnings per diluted share from continuing operations in the range of $0.73$0.80.

The full-year figures are unchanged at between $9.56 billion and $9.76 billion, with GAAP earnings per diluted share from continuing operations in the range of $2.20$2.30 and non-GAAP earnings per diluted share from continuing operations in the range of $3.00$3.10.

“Given the dynamic environment, we are not revising our full year revenue and EPS estimates,” the company notes. “This guidance reflects management’s expectations for operational performance and the impacts seen in both of our Marketplaces and Classifieds platforms to date, but given the uncertainty surrounding the extent and duration of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is difficult to predict what may result as shelter-in-place guidelines are eased and lifted and how global consumer demand, the effects of COVID-19 on the general economy, seller inventory and advertising spending may evolve over time.”

More to come.

Extra Crunch Live: Join Roelof Botha for a live Q&A on May 6 at 2pm ET/11am PT

23andMe. MongoDB. Eventbrite. Evernote. Bird. Square . Tumblr. Unity. YouTube. Xoom.

Roelof Botha has had a board seat in each of these companies, but his list of investments is much, much longer.

The Sequoia partner and managing director is legendary in Silicon Valley and the broader tech world, and we’re very excited that he’s joining us for an upcoming episode of Extra Crunch Live that will air on Wednesday, May 6th at 2pm ET/11am PT. Extra Crunch members may join the Zoom call or view the broadcast live (or on demand) on YouTube. If you’re not already a member, you can join here.

Before Botha graduated from Stanford, he had joined the ranks of the PayPal mafia, serving as the fintech startup’s director of corporate development. He climbed the ranks to vice president of finance and was eventually named CFO in 2001. He was just 28 went PayPal went public in 2002.

Following PayPal’s sale to eBay, Botha left the company to join Sequoia Capital in January of 2003; since then, he has been investing in some of the world’s fastest-rising startups.

Botha has been on Forbes’ Midas List every year since 2008 and was ranked third in 2020. He led Sequoia’s investments in companies like Instagram, YouTube and Square and is one of the most respected voices in tech and venture capital alike.

With the coronavirus thrashing the economy and forcing quick adaptation from the tech sector and beyond, Botha can provide a unique look at what comes next for tech and offer advice to startups that are trying to chart a course through a storm that has no end in sight.

We’ll ask Botha how he’s advising his own portfolio companies, any decision-making frameworks he suggests for business leaders who find themselves between a rock and a hard place and his general outlook on VC appetite over the next six to twelve months. There will also be plenty of time for questions from the audience, so come prepared.

You can find the Zoom info below.

Botha joins an incredible list of speakers joining us on Extra Crunch Live, including Kirsten Green, Mark Cuban and Hunter Walk. We’ll be announcing new speakers soon, so stay tuned!

eBay names Walmart exec Jamie Iannone CEO

Half a year after Devin Wenig stepped down as CEO, eBay is finally ready to name a permanent replacement. Following an appointment from the company’s board of directors, Jamie Iannone will step into the role as head of the company, effective April 27. The executive was also elected to eBay’s board.

Most recently, Iannone served as the COO of Walmart’s eCommerce division, having only been appointed the give a few months prior. Previously, he held a number of high profile executive gigs under the Walmart umbrella, including serving as the CEO of SamsClub.com. Other jobs include a four year stint at Barnes & Noble’s digital division (including Nook) and eight years as at eBay.

“In my previous experience with the company, I developed a deep appreciation for what makes eBay so special. eBay’s success has always been rooted in its robust C2C platform,” Iannone said in a release. “I believe the company has tremendous opportunities to capitalize on this foundation, innovate for the future and grow its ecosystem. I look forward to working with our global teams to enhance buyer experiences and provide more capabilities that will help small businesses sustain and grow. I will focus on continuing to evolve the company’s strategy while delivering on eBay’s commitment to maximize long-term shareholder value.”

Even more pressing than shareholder value at the moment (insofar as anything can be more pressing than shareholder value) is the company’s response to the on-going COVID-19 crisis. In late-March, eBay announced a crackdown on price gouging, and more recently, a waiving of seller fees to help struggling brick and mortars shift to a new, online selling paradigm. As with many other aspects of life, online retail is expected to be profoundly transformed by the global pandemic for some time to come. 

Mobile payments firms in India are now scrambling to make money

Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and chief executive of India’s most valuable startup, Paytm, posed an existential question in a recent press conference.

“What do you think of the commercial model for digital mobile payments. How do we make money?” Sharma asked Nandan Nilekani, one of the key architects of the Universal Payments Infrastructure that created a digital payments revolution in the country.

It’s the multi-billion-dollar question that scores of local startups and international giants have been scrambling to answer as many of them aggressively shift their focus to serving merchants and building lending products and other financial services .

New Delhi’s abrupt move to invalidate much of the paper bills in the cash-dominated nation in late 2016 sent hundreds of millions of people to cash machines for months to follow.

For a handful of startups such as Paytm and MobiKwik, this cash crunch meant netting tens of millions of new users in a span of a few months.

India then moved to work with a coalition of banks to develop the payments infrastructure that, unlike Paytm and MobiKwik’s earlier system, did not act as an intermediary “mobile wallet” to serve as an intermediary between users and their banks, but facilitated direct transaction between two users’ bank accounts.

Silicon Valley companies quickly took notice. For years, Google and the likes have attempted to change the purchasing behavior of people in many Asian and African markets, where they have amassed hundreds of millions of users.

In Pakistan, for instance, most people still run errands to neighborhood stores when they want to top up credit to make phone calls and access the internet.

With China keeping its doors largely closed for foreign firms, India, where many American giants have already poured billions of dollars to find their next billion users, it was a no-brainer call.

“Unlike China, we have given equal opportunities to both small and large domestic and foreign companies,” said Dilip Asbe, chief executive of NPCI, the payments body behind UPI.

And thus began the race to participate in the grand Indian experiment. Investors have followed suit as well. Indian fintech startups raised $2.74 billion last year, compared to 3.66 billion that their counterparts in China secured, according to research firm CBInsights.

And that bet in a market with more than half a billion internet users has already started to pay off.

“If you look at UPI as a platform, we have never seen growth of this kind before,” Nikhil Kumar, who volunteered at a nonprofit organization to help develop the payments infrastructure, said in an interview.

In October, just three years after its inception, UPI had amassed 100 million users and processed over a billion transactions. It has sustained its growth since, clocking 1.25 billion transactions in March — despite one of the nation’s largest banks going through a meltdown last month.

“It all comes down to the problem it is solving. If you look at the western markets, digital payments have largely been focused on a person sending money to a merchant. UPI does that, but it also enables peer-to-peer payments and across a wide-range of apps. It’s interoperable,” said Kumar, who is now working at a startup called Setu to develop APIs to help small businesses easily accept digital payments.

Vice-president of Google’s Next Billion Users Caesar Sengupta speaks during the launch of the Google “Tez” mobile app for digital payments in New Delhi on September 18, 2017 (Photo: Getty Images via AFP PHOTO / SAJJAD HUSSAIN)

The Google Pay app has amassed over 67 million monthly active users. And the company has found the UPI pipeline so fascinating that it has recommended similar infrastructure to be built in the U.S.

In August, the Federal Reserve proposed to develop a new inter-bank 24×7 real-time gross settlement service that would support faster payments in the country. In November, Google recommended (PDF) that the U.S. Federal Reserve implement a real-time payments platform such as UPI.

“After just three years, the annual run rate of transactions flowing through UPI is about 19% of India’s Gross Domestic Product, including 800 million monthly transactions valued at approximately $19 billion,” wrote Mark Isakowitz, Google’s vice president of Government Affairs and Public Policy.

Paytm itself has amassed more than 150 million users who use it every year to make transactions. Overall, the platform has 300 million mobile wallet accounts and 55 million bank accounts, said Sharma.

Search for a business model

But despite on-boarding more than a hundred million users on their platform, payment firms are struggling to cut their losses — let alone turn a profit.

At an event in Bangalore late last year, Sajith Sivanandan, managing director and business head of Google Pay and Next Billion User Initiatives, said current local rules have forced Google Pay to operate in India without a clear business model.

Mobile payment firms never levied any fee to users as a strategy to expand their reach in the country. A recent directive from the government has now put an end to the cut they were receiving to facilitate UPI transactions between users and merchants.

Google’s Sivanandan urged the local payment bodies to “find ways for payment players to make money” to ensure every stakeholder had incentives to operate.

Paytm, which has raised more than $3 billion to date, reported a loss of $549 million in the financial year ending in March 2019.

The firm, backed by SoftBank and Alibaba, has expanded to several new businesses in recent years, including Paytm Mall, an e-commerce venture, social commerce, financial services arm Paytm Money and a movies and ticketing category.

This year, Paytm has expanded to serve merchants, launching new gadgets such as a stand that displays QR check-out codes that comes with a calculator and a battery pack, a portable speaker that provides voice confirmations of transactions and a point-of-sale machine with built-in scanner and printer.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Sharma said these devices are already garnering impressive demand from merchants. The company is offering these gadgets to them as part of a subscription service that helps it establish a steady flow of revenue.

The firm’s Money arm, which offers lending, insurance and investing services, has amassed over 3 million users. The head of Paytm Money, Pravin Jadhav, resigned from the company this week, a person familiar with the matter said. A Paytm spokeswoman declined to comment. (Indian news outlet Entrackr first reported the development.)

Flipkart’s PhonePe, another major player in India’s payments market, today serves more than 175 million users, and over 8 million merchants. Its app serves as a platform for other businesses to reach users, explained Rahul Chari, co-founder and CTO of the firm, in an interview with TechCrunch. The company is currently not taking a cut for the real estate on its app, he added.

But these startups’ expansion into new categories means that they now have to face off even more rivals, and spend more money to gain a foothold. In the social commerce category, for instance, Paytm is competing with Naspers-backed Meesho and a handful of new entrants; and heavily-backed OkCredit and KhataBook today lead the bookkeeping market.

BharatPe, which raised $75 million two months ago, is digitizing mom and pop stores and granting them working capital. And PineLabs, which has already become a unicorn, and MSwipe have flooded the market with their point-of-sale machines.

A vendor holds an Mswipe terminal, operated by M-Swipe Technologies Pvt Ltd., in an arranged photograph at a roadside stall in Bengaluru, India, on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“They have no choice. Payment is the gateway to businesses such as e-commerce and lending that you can monetize. In Paytm’s case, their earlier bet was Paytm Mall,” said Jayanth Kolla, founder and chief analyst at research firm Convergence Catalyst.

But Paytm Mall has struggled to compete with giants Amazon India and Walmart’s Flipkart. Last year, Mall pivoted to offline-to-online and online-to-offline models, wherein orders placed by customers are serviced from local stores. The company also secured about $160 million from eBay last year.

An executive who previously worked at Paytm Mall said the venture has struggled to grow because its goal-post has constantly shifted over the years. It has recently started to focus on selling fastags, a system that allows vehicle owners to swiftly pay toll fees. At least two more executives at the firm are on their way out, a person familiar with the matter said.

Kolla said the current dynamics of India’s mobile payments market, where more than 100 firms are chasing the same set of audience, is reminiscent of the telecom market in the country from more than a decade ago.

“When there were just four to five players in the telecom market, the prospect of them becoming profitable was much higher. They were scaling like crazy. They grew with the lowest ARPU in the world (at about $2) and were still profitable.

“But the moment that number grew to more than a dozen overnight, and the new players started offering more affordable plans to subscribers, that’s when profitability started to become elusive,” he said.

To top that off, the arrival of Reliance Jio, a telecom operator run by India’s richest man, in 2016 in the country with the cheapest tariff plans in the world, upended the market once again, forcing several players to leave the market, or declare bankruptcies, or consolidate.

India’s mobile payments market is now heading to a similar path, said Kolla.

If there were not enough players fighting for a slice of India’s mobile payments market that Credit Suisse estimate could reach $1 trillion by 2023, WhatsApp, the most popular app in the country with more that 400 million users, is set to roll out its mobile payments service in the country in a couple of months.

At the aforementioned press conference, Nilekani advised Sharma and other players to focus on financial services such as lending.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus outbreak that promoted New Delhi to order a three-week lockdown last month is likely going to impact the ability of millions of people to use such services.

“India has more than 100 million microfinance accounts, serviced in cash every week by gig-economy workers, who hawk vegetables on street corners or embroider saris sold in malls, among other things. Three out of four workers make a living by working casually for others or at their family firms and farms. Prolonged shutdowns will impair their ability to repay loans of 2.1 trillion rupees ($28.5 billion), putting the world’s largest microfinance industry at risk,” wrote Bloomberg columnist Andy Mukherjee.