Singapore-based Syfe, a robo-advisor with a human touch, raises $18.6 million led by Valar Ventures

Dhruv Arora, the founder and CEO of Singapore-based investment platform Syfe

Dhruv Arora, the founder and CEO of Singapore-based investment platform Syfe

Syfe, a Singapore-based startup that wants to make investing more accessible in Asia, announced today that it has closed a SGD $25.2 million (USD $18.6 million) Series A led by Valar Ventures, a fintech-focused investment firm.

The round also included participation from Presight Capital and returning investor Unbound, which led Syfe’s seed funding last year.

Founded in 2017 by chief executive officer Dhruv Arora, Syfe launched in July 2019. Like “robo-advisors” Robinhood, Acorns and Stash, Syfe’s goal is to make investing more accessible. There is no minimum amount required to start investing and its all-inclusive pricing structure ranges from .4% to .65% per year.

Syfe serves customers based in 23 countries, but currently only actively markets it services in Singapore, where it is licensed under the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Part of its new funding will be used to expand into new Asian countries. The startup hasn’t disclosed its exact user numbers, but says the number of its customers and assets under management have increased tenfold since the beginning of the year, and almost half of its new clients were referred by existing users.

Other Valar Ventures portfolio companies include TransferWise, Xero and digital bank N26. In a statement about Syfe, founding partner Andrew McCormack said, “The potential of Asia as a region, with a fast-growing number of mass-affluent consumers aiming to grow their wealth, combined with the pedigree of the team and strong traction, makes Syfe a very compelling opportunity.”

Before starting Syfe, Arora was an investment banker at UBS Investment Bank in Hong Kong before serving as vice president of product and growth at Grofers, one of India’s largest online grocery delivery services. While at UBS, Arora worked with exchange-traded funds, or ETFs.

“I could see how a lot of institutions and some ultra-high-net worth individuals who are clients of the bank were using the product, and I thought it was a great tool for individuals, too,” Arora told TechCrunch. “But what I realized was that people are actually not very aware of how to use ETFs.”

In many Asian countries, people prefer to put their money away in bank accounts or invest in real estate. As interest rates and property prices stagnate, however, consumers are looking for other ways to invest. Syfe currently offers three investment products. The first is a global diversified portfolio with a mix of stocks, bonds and ETFs that is automatically managed according to each investor’s chosen risk level. The second is a REIT portfolio based on the Singapore Exchange’s iEdge S-REIT Leaders Index. Finally, Syfe’s Equity100 portfolio consists of ETFs that include stocks from more than 1,500 companies around the world.

Other Asia-focused “robo-advisor” services include Stashaway and Kristal.ai, and Grab Financial also recently announced a “micro-investment” product. Arora acknowledges that in the future, there may be more entrants to the space. Right now, however, Syfe’s main competitor is the mindset that banks are still the best way to save money, he added. Part of Syfe’s work is consumer education, because “it was culturally ingrained in a lot of us, myself included, to keep your money in the bank.”

Syfe differentiates with a team of financial advisors, including former employees of Goldman Sachs, Citibank and Morgan Stanley, who are on hand for user consultations. Arora said most Syfe users talk to advisors when they first join the platform, and about 20% of them continue using the service. Questions have included if people should use a credit card to invest, which Arora said advisors dissuade them from doing because of high interest rates.

“We definitely want to be a tech-first platform, but we understand there is a value, especially as you deal with some of the older audiences who are in their 50s and 60s, who are still adapting to these technologies,” he said. “They need to know that you know there is somebody out there to look after their products.”

While Syfe’s average user is aged between 30 to 45, one growing bracket is people in their 50s who are motivated to save for retirement, or want to create a supplement to their pension plan. Users typically start with an initial investment of about SGD $10,000 (about USD $7,340), and about four out of five users regularly top up that amount.

Some users have tried other investment products, like investment-linked insurance plans, but for many, Arora says Syfe is their first introduction to investing in stocks, bonds and ETFs.

“We’ve realized that a fair number of them are quite well-to-do professionals in their field, in their mid- to late 30s, who amassed a significant amount of wealth but never really had a chance to invest, or the right advice on how to invest,” said Arora. “I think this has been one of the biggest revelations for us and it made us realize we should have a human touch in our platform.”

The platform manages its products with a mix of an investment team and algorithms that help avoid human bias, said Arora. Syfe’s algorithms take into account growth versus value, the market cap of a stock, volatility and sector momentum. To balance risk, it also analyzes how individual assets correlate with other assets in the same portfolio.

Arora said Syfe is currently in advanced talks with regulators in several countries and expects to be in at least two new markets by the end of next year. It also plans to double the size of its team and create more consumer financial products.

During COVID-19, Arora said Syfe’s portfolios experienced significantly lower corrections than indexes like the S&P, so only a few users withdrew their money. In fact, many invested more.

“I feel people have been rethinking their finances and the future,” he said. “As banks cut interest rates across the world, including in Singapore, many of them have started looking at other options.”

Following TechCrunch reporting, Palantir rapidly removes language allowing founders to “unilaterally adjust their total voting power”

Well, that was fast.

This morning, I analyzed Palantir’s newly published 5th amendment of its S-1 filing with the SEC as it pursues a public direct listing on the NYSE. I called the company “not a democracy” after it added new provisions to create a special mechanism called “Stockholder Party Excluded Shares” that would, in the language of Palantir, allow the company’s trio of founders to “unilaterally adjust their total voting power” at will, now and into the future.

Well, Palantir has now filed a 6th amendment with the SEC just a few hours after it filed its previous amendment, and the company has removed all references to this special mechanism from its SEC filing.

The 19 mentions of “Stockholder Party Excluded Shares” and multiple sections where the mechanism were discussed and explained have now been entirely excised. In addition, the company’s line about its founders having the capability to “unilaterally adjust their total voting power” has also been similarly removed.

Outside of those changes, the two different versions of the company’s S-1 filing are essentially identical. And for those keeping score from this morning, in this tenth rendition of the company’s public offering documents including its previous draft registration statements, the latest filing includes 168 mentions of “voting power” — identical to the number this morning. Here’s an updated chart:

It’s a quick about-face for the enterprise software company, which has spent weeks prepping for its direct listing, originally scheduled for September 23 and which has since been moved back to September 29. While corporate governance has certainly gotten weaker over the past few years, Palantir’s newly introduced language this morning stretched the definition of shareholder governance quite frankly to its breaking point. Walking back those changes was the right call.

There’s no telling whether the SEC, NYSE, potential investors in the direct listing, executives, or insiders pushed for these changes. However, companies rarely make such rapid changes with their SEC filings (then again, I’ve never seen an IPO with so many amendments in the first place, so we are in uncharted territory). Palantir remains in an SEC-mandated quiet period.

We’ll continue to monitor developments as Palantir heads to the public markets presumably next week.

Miami-based Marco Financial is launching a revenue-based lending service for Latin American SMEs

Marco Financial, a new Miami-based startup, is looking to take a piece of the roughly $350 billion trade finance market for Latin American exporters with its novel factoring services business. 

Small and medium-sized businesses in Latin America can have trouble getting the financing they need to launch export operations to the U.S. and Marco said it aims to bridge that gap with new risk modeling and management tools that can make better decisions on who should receive loans.

For smaller businesses in Latin America, accessing trade finance to export their goods is a major concern and a top reason why many dont succeed,” said Javier Urrutia, director of Foreign Investments at PROCOLOMBIA, an organization that promotes foreign investment and non-traditional exports in Colombia, in a statement from the company. In Colombia alone, a 1% increase in exporter productivity in our textile industry would result in 500,000 new jobs for the country.

The company is backed by a small seed round from Struck Capital and Antler and over $20 million in a credit facility underwritten by Arcadia Funds.  

As a former owner of a small business in Latin America, I saw firsthand how difficult it is for SMEs in this region to access trade financing that will let them export their goods while retaining enough capital to keep their business running,” said Peter D. Spradling, COO and co-founder of Marco, in a statementAccess to trade finance is one of the greatest hurdles in business operations and the traditional system dominated by banks is simply not working anymore, disproportionately hurting SMEs and further restricting economic mobility and job creation in emerging markets. Equity funding and a material credit facility let us serve this underserved market in Latin America and help build a healthier, more equitable trade ecosystem reflective of an increasingly borderless global economy.

Spradling met his co-founder Jacob Shoihet through the Antler accelerator, a Singapore and New York-based early-stage investment and advisory services program that connects entrepreneurs and tech operators to launch new businesses. 

Shoihet, a classically trained musician who fell in with the startup scene in New York through work at Yelp, was eager to launch his own company and connected with Spradling over shared interests in intermittent fasting and sports.

Small and medium businesses have a hard time receiving loans from traditional lenders thanks to tighter regulations and capital controls dating back to the 2008 financial crisis, according to Marco’s founders. And the long periods that companies have to wait between when goods are shipped and orders are payed can put undue pressure on business operations. Factoring solves the gap by lending to merchants based on their receivables.

Marco said that it can reduce the length of the loan origination process from over two months to one week and provide funding to approved exporters within 24 hours.

The company is initially focused on Mexico, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia and Peru, and chose those markets because of Spradling’s previous experience as an importer and exporter across the region.

“We look for companies that not only target massive, sleepy industries but also for ones that are led by management teams with fresh perspectives and asymmetric information that position them to upend incumbents,” said Yida Gao, partner at Struck Capital, in a statement. “In short order, Marco has assembled a world-class team to tackle the multi trillion-dollar trade finance market in a post-Covid time when SMEs around the world need, more than ever, reliable capital to fund operations and growth. We are excited to be part of Marco’s journey to support the suppliers that are the backbone of global trade.”

A meeting room of one’s own: Three VCs discuss breaking out of big firms to start their own gigs

One of the more salient trends in the tech world — arguably the engine that propels it — has been the recurring theme of people who hone talents at bigger companies and then strike out on their own to found their own startups.

(Some, like Max Levchin, even hire entrepreneurial types intentionally to help perpetuate this cycle and get more proactive teams in place.)

It turns out that trend doesn’t just apply to companies, but also to the investors who back them. At Disrupt we talked with three venture capitalists who have followed that path: Making their names and cutting their teeth at major firms, and now building their own “startup” funds on their own steam.

On the macro level, the whole world has been living through a challenging time this year. But as we’ve seen time and again the wheels have continued to turn in the tech world.

IPOs are returning, products are being rolled out, people are buying a lot online and using the internet to stay connected, there has been a lot of M&A and promising startups are getting funded.

Indeed, if entrepreneurs and their innovations are the engine of the tech world, money is the fuel, and that is the opportunity that Dayna Grayson (formerly of NEA, now founder at Construct Capital), Renata Quintini (formerly at Lux Capital, now founder at Renegade Partners) and Lo Toney (formerly GV, now founder at Plexo Capital) have zeroed in to address.

Grayson said that part of the reason for striking out to start Construct Capital with co-founder Rachel Holt was what they saw as an opportunity to create a firm that specifically funded startups tackling the industrial sector:

“Half the U.S. economy’s GDP, half the GDP of this country, hasn’t really been digitized,” she said. “[Firms] haven’t been tech enabled. They’ve been way under invested … The time is now to build with early stage entrepreneurs.”

While Construct is focusing on a sector, Renegade was founded to focus on something else: The stage of development for a startup, and specific the Series B, which the firm refers to as “supercritical,” essential in terms of getting team and strategy right after a startup is no longer just starting out, but before and leading to scaled growth.

“We saw through our boards over and over again companies that figured out how to scale their organizations, put in the processes,” said Quintini, who co-founded Renegade with Roseanne Wincek. “On the people side, they actually went further and captured a lot more market cap and market share faster. Once we saw this opportunity, we could not let it go.”

She compares the current imperative to really focus on how to build and scale companies at the “supercritical” stage to the focus on early stage funding that typified an earlier period in the development of the startup ecosystem 15 years ago. “You could get a million dollars and be in business, a lot more people could, and you had less time to figure out what really resonated with customers,” she said. “That really gave rise to today.”

Toney has taken yet another approach, focusing not on sector, nor stage, but using capital to help germinate a whole new demographic of founders, the premise being that funding a more diverse and inclusive mix of founders is not just good for creating a more level playing field, but also for the good of more well-rounded products that speak to a wider population of users.

“I was having a great time at GV, but I just saw this opportunity as being one that was too hard to resist,” said Toney of founding Plexo, which invests not just in startups but in funds that are following a similar investment principle to his. Investing in both funds and founders is something GV did as well, but the added ability to turn that into investing with a social imperative was important. “To have this byproduct of increasing diversity and inclusion in the ecosystem [is something] I’m super passionate about,” he said. 

We are living through a time when the tech world seems to be awash in capital. One of the byproducts of having so many successful tech companies has been limited partners rushing in to back more VCs in hopes of also getting some of the spoils: Many firms are closing funds in record times, oversubscribed and that’s having a knock-on effect not just in terms of startups getting funded, but VCs themselves also multiplying with increasing frequency. All three said that the fact that they all identify as more than just “another new VC”, with specific purposes, also makes it easier for them to get themselves noticed to get involved in good deals.

Grayson said that the challenge of starting a firm in the midst of a global pandemic turned out to be a piece of good fortune in disguise in an industry that thrives on the concept of “disruption” (as we at TechCrunch know all too well … ).

“We were really lucky that we started investing in a COVID world,” she said. “So many things have been up ended. And I think, you know, software adoption and technology adoption have been moved up 10-20 years in industry. [And] the way that we work together really has changed.” She also said that they’ve found themselves almost looking for companies “created in a COVID environment,” which indeed would qualify as a battle-tested business model.

In terms of raising funds themselves, Toney also recalled the period when we saw a real surge of VCs emerging to fund companies at the seed stage and the growth of “solo capitalists” around that.

“I think what’s really interesting about solo capitalists is [how] they take their understanding of operations, and a deep network of other technologists, both from big companies as well as entrepreneurs, and … leverage access to all that deal flow by going out and actually raising capital from other sources, whether that be high net worth individuals or family offices or even institutions,” he said.

In its 5th filing with the SEC, Palantir finally admits it is not a democracy

Palantir is not a democracy, and it really, really, really wants you to know that.

Palantir’s governance has been under an exacting lens from regulators the past few weeks as it prepares for a public direct listing on September 29th. In revision after revision of its S-1 filing to the SEC — now totaling eight including its draft registration statements — the company has had to continuously explain and re-explain what exactly it is trying to do to prevent retail investors from controlling the company.

Little surprise then that its fifth amended S-1 filing, published this morning, shows even more disclosures about the pitifully small governance control that retail investors will have upon the company’s public market debut.

In a newly added line, the company admits that “holders of our Class A common stock [i.e. the stock that will trade on NYSE starting September 29th] will hold approximately 3.4% of the voting power of our outstanding capital stock.”

“Voting power” is clearly very important to regulators — the term is now used 168 times in Palantir’s latest amended S-1 filing, up from just 58 in its original filing just a few weeks ago. In fact, take a look at this amazing chart on just how much Palantir has had to explain voting power to regulators over the past few weeks in filing after filing:

Indeed, just to prove how much voting power retail investors are giving up, the company published another column to its infamous founder-ownership table that I discussed at length on Friday. As part of the three-class voting share structure Palantir is using, its founders will retain outsized voting control of the company through what are known as Class F or founders shares, so long as they meet a minimal ownership threshold.

How unbalanced can that voting be? In the most extreme scenario according to Palantir’s newly updated table, its founders could control 68.099999% of the company’s vote while owning just 0.5% of the company’s shares.

In addition, the company has also added a new risk factor reminding owners of the company’s stock that Palantir can issue new stock at any time, and those newly issued shares will dilute retail investors even further in their voting rights relative to founders, who are offered a variable number of votes to ensure they maintain control of the company.

It gets worse though. Palantir has been promulgating this arcane mechanism over the last few amendments to the SEC that would allow its three founders — Alex Karp, Stephen Cohen and Peter Thiel — to designate certain shares to be held outside of their “founder shares” and therefore increase their overall voting power. In its last amendment, the only founder to designate shares in this way was Peter Thiel, who designated a huge bulk of his shares (13.4% of Palantir) as excluded from the founders share calculation.

Now in its latest update, Palantir says that founders will be able to increase their votes essentially willy-nilly by designating any or all of their shares as “Stockholder Party Excluded Shares,” which will be voted separately from their founder shares. And the right to do this will last from the company’s public debut all the way to “in the future.” In short, Palantir’s founders will hold 49.999999% control through their founder shares, plus the votes of any excluded shares, to be determined at any time. As of today, no shares have been designated as excluded, according to the filing.

That leads to one of my new favorite admissions in this whole governance saga: Palantir won’t be able to tell anyone what their actual voting power is, even when they are just about to vote. From its newly amended filing:

In addition, it may be very difficult for our Class A common stockholders to determine from time to time, including in advance of a meeting of stockholders, their individual or aggregate voting power due to the unique features of our multi-class capital structure, such as the variable number of votes per share of our Class F common stock and the ability of our Founders who are then party to the Founder Voting Agreement to unilaterally adjust their total voting power, for example, by designating shares as Stockholder Party Excluded Shares, as described in more detail herein.

The complexity of Palantir’s three-class voting system means that no one basically knows what the hell is going on. “Unilaterally adjust their total voting power” is not a democracy, indeed.

There’s good news though! Palantir might actually add — I kid you not — another class of voting shares just to make all of this even more complicated!

In another new disclosure this morning, the company writes that “In addition, in the future we could create a new class of equity securities with different economic or voting rights than existing classes,” and explains how that could upend the voting for the company further.

I joked last week that “For a company vaunted for its clandestine government work and strong engineering culture, you can’t help but wonder if the government’s bureaucratic norms and paperwork pushing are starting to flood into the Shire.” Well, the complexity is only getting worse and worse, and it doesn’t look good.

Tech companies, even those publicly traded, aren’t democracies. The two-class voting system most tech companies offer their founders and early investors are not democratic — some people get one vote per share while others get 10 votes per share. But it has become a norm whether we like it or not, and it’s directionally helped tech companies avoid the sort of hostile investor scenarios that have plagued other companies in the market.

Now, Palantir is stretching these notions to the extreme, trying to present as a shareholder-centered corporation when it is — let’s just admit it — an oligarchy of three.

It’s a bit like reading the People’s Republic of China constitution and finding this section in Chapter 2: “All citizens of the People’s Republic of China are equal before the law. The State respects and preserves human rights. … Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” And you are like, what?

Words don’t mean anything when the votes and the system aren’t there.

Chamath launches SPAC, SPAC and SPAC as he SPACs the world with SPACs

SPACs are going to rule the world, or at least, Chamath’s future portfolio.

Chamath Palihapitiya, the founder of Social Capital, has already tripled down on SPACs, the so-called “blank check” vehicle that takes private companies and flips them onto the public markets. His first SPAC bought Virgin Galactic last year, and his second SPAC bought Opendoor this week in a blockbuster deal valuing the instant home sale platform at $4.8 billion, less cash. His third SPAC officially fundraised in April, and has yet to announce a deal.

Now, it looks like he’s going to double down on his triple down. After the bell rung on Wall Street this Friday, the venture capitalist filed three new SPAC vehicles with the SEC. Social Capital Hedosophia Holdings Corp. IV has a headline value of $350 million, Social Capital Hedosophia Holdings Corp. V has a headline value of $650 million and Social Capital Hedosophia Holdings Corp. VI has a headline value of $1 billion.

Those headline values are targets: each SPAC will need to go through an investor roadshow process and officially raise capital before they can begin trying to find an acquisition target. Each SPAC is independent, and may share investors or have entirely independent investors around the table.

The three new SPACs share similar managers: Palihapitiya himself; Ian Osborne, who manages Hedosophia; Steven Trieu, the CFO of Social Capital; and Simon Williams, the chief administration officer of Hedosophia.

However, each has a different fifth director, who perhaps sheds some light on how each SPAC differs in strategy. Nirav Tolia, a co-founder and CEO of popular social network Nextdoor, is joining the fourth SPAC. Jay Parikh, a former head of engineering at Facebook, who left earlier this year, is joining the fifth SPAC. And finally, Dick Costolo, the former CEO of Twitter and current venture capitalist, is joining the sixth SPAC.

We’ve been talking about the accelerating pace of SPACs this year, and that appears in microcosm here around these Social Capital vehicles. It seems as though Palihapitiya and Hedosophia not only have great ambitions for these vehicles, but are increasingly mechanizing the process of fundraising them and taking advantage of markets that seem excited for any avenue toward growth.

Chime adds $485M at a $14.5B valuation, claims EBITDA profitability

In the midst of IPO week we have to add another name to our future debuts list, namely Chime, which announced a huge new round of capital today. The $485 million Series F values the consumer fintech giant at $14.5 billion, a huge figure given that Chime was most recently worth $5.8 billion after raising $700 million last December.

Even more stark is the company’s $1.5 billion valuation set in early 2019. From $1.5 billion to $14.5 billion in less than two years is quite a run for any startup. Powering the latest round there were a host of familiar names, including Tiger, ICONIQ and General Atlantic, along with Dragoneer and DST Global. Names I’m less familiar with like Whale Rock Capital and Access Technology Ventures also took part.

Tucked inside a CNBC article that broke the story was news that Chime is now EBITDA profitable and could be “IPO-ready” in its CEO’s eyes in around a year’s time.

TechCrunch reached out to Chime for clarification on the EBITDA point, asking if the figure is adjusted or not, as many EBTIDA metrics remove the cost of share-based compensation given to their employees. According to Chime, the metric is “true EBITDA,” to which we award an extra five points. In response to a growth question, Chime said that its “transaction and top-line” has tripled compared to the year-ago period.

The Chime round and news of its nascent, non-GAAP profitability comes on the heels of a grip of reports on the financial health of a number of European neobanks, or challenger banks as they are often called. The numbers showed huge growth, and steep losses. If Chime’s numbers hold up when we get its eventual S-1 — start your countdowns — it will be among the healthiest of the startups in its cohort in financial terms, we reckon.

Finally, the company is trying to paint itself as something of a software company, and not a fintech company. This is a move to attract better revenue multiples when it comes time to defend its new $14.5 billion valuation. Software companies have flat-out bonkers multiples these days, as evinced by the blockbuster Snowflake debut.

Here’s how Chime thinks of itself, via CNBC:

“We’re more like a consumer software company than a bank,” Britt said. “It’s more a transaction-based, processing-based business model that is highly predictable, highly recurring and highly profitable.”

The key phrases there are “software company” and “highly predictable, highly recurring and highly profitable.” In effect Chime will argue that interchange revenues should fit under the SaaS umbrella given their regularity. Investors will decide how to view that pitch. If it works, maybe fintechs are more valuable than expected. And those fintechs with obvious SaaS components, like Acorns, could be sitting pretty when it comes to making the fintech versus SaaS argument.

Regardless, it’s another huge round for Chime, which makes it a good day for the highly-valued fintech sector.

In its 4th revision to the SEC, Palantir tries to explain what the hell is going on

For a company vaunted for its clandestine government work and strong engineering culture, you can’t help but wonder if the government’s bureaucratic norms and paperwork pushing are starting to flood into the Shire.

When most companies go public, they file a Form S-1 with the SEC, wait a few weeks through the investor road show, and then submit an amended filing with the final details of the offering before trading commences. Simple, easy, effective. No one wants to mess with the SEC, and so top securities law firms work diligently to ensure that everything is in order when that initial form is filed.

Palantir has done nothing of the sort. It filed a confidential draft registration statement back in July. It filed an amendment. It filed another amendment. It filed its official S-1. Then an amendment, and an amendment, and an amendment, and an amendment. And it’s still not trading, so another amendment is in the offing.

Palantir is not a complicated business. It’s a software business (mostly) today with 125 customers, making real revenues, and with a decent story to tell investors. And yet, you can’t help but look agog at the level of complication and paperwork the company has created for itself by just trying to be a little bit different from everyone else.

One part of that compilation was its invention of a direct listing with a lockup. When a company directly lists on a stock exchange, recent tradition holds that insiders are not locked up, which means that they will be allowed to start buying and selling their shares as soon as the company hits the market. For reasons that are known only to Palantir, the company decided to mostly block employee trading, limiting the float that can be expected when it begins trading.

So in today’s 4th amendment to its S-1, we have some updated figures of what the lockup will look like. Palantir will lock up about 80% of shares in the company, allowing about 380 million shares to trade on opening day. Eight million more shares will come on the market in November when certain restricted stock units vest for company employees, and other vested RSUs will also not be beholden to the lockup agreement as they come next year.

This direct listing with lockup was compilation number one. Complication number two is the absolute byzantine ownership structure that Palantir has selected for itself. In a note added this morning in its filing, the company admits that “This is a novel capital structure that differs significantly from those of other companies that have dual or multiple class capital structures.” That’s quite an understatement.

In Palantir’s governance structure, it will have three classes of shares. Class A shares have 1 vote, Class B shares have 10 votes, and Class F shares (for “Founder”) have a variable number of votes that will ensure that Palantir’s founders Alex Karp, Stephen Cohen and Peter Thiel maintain 49.999999% control of the company essentially in perpetuity (or at least, until they want to give it up by selling).

Today, the company provided a handy table on exactly what that all means, since it’s not simple at all. Let’s take a look at a cleaned-up version of their voting table, based on which founders are employed at Palantir at a specific time:

The key here is that so long as the three founders are all actively working at Palantir, their ownership is meant to be capped at 49.999999% of the company. In other words, any other shares they own of the Class A and Class B varietals are included within that ownership number. This is something I have gotten wrong, so mea culpa, although frankly, if you need to file a half dozen amendments to the SEC to explain what you are doing, I feel like I am in good company.

Where it gets bizarre is if one of the three founders leaves. In those scenarios, the three of them collectively will have even more power than if they all actually work at the company simultaneously. For instance, if Thiel leaves the company (which in his case means resigning from the board), the three founders actually increase their voting power collectively from 49.999999% to 64.999999%, assuming Thiel doesn’t sell any of his own shares.What do those calculations ultimately mean? Well, Palantir was graceful enough to put an explanation in its fourth amendment on exactly what it all boils down to:

While the Board retains the power to hire and remove members of our management, which currently includes two of our Founders, the Founders would continue to beneficially own shares of Class F common stock and Class B common stock and be able to exercise control over matters submitted to a vote of our stockholders so long as our Founders who are then party to the Founder Voting Agreement and certain of their affiliates collectively meet the Ownership Threshold on the applicable record date, even if one or more of our Founders resigns from the Company or is terminated. (Emphasis mine)

In other words, if you strike them down, they shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine, Shareholder.

Palantir in this filing also made clear that there is at least some floor by which the three founders have to collectively own the company. With all three of them onboard, they have to maintain ownership over 100 million shares of the company, or slightly less than 5%. So they can’t, say, own 0.0001% of the company and control 49.999999% of the vote. What a relief!

Look, founder control is a mainstay of modern Silicon Valley tech IPOs. But we’ve never seen such an extensive, interlocking set of systems designed to make a company absolutely impregnable to any form of external governance. I can understand the concerns with Palantir, given its work, its controversies, and the extreme media attention it receives. It probably needs some form of governance that provides it stability amidst the maelstrom. But all of this sets such a bad precedent for the rest of Silicon Valley that I hope it’s recognized in their share price.

Finance and the digital divide: a conversation with Tunde Kehinde of Lidya

Small and medium businesses have been some of the hardest hit in the Covid-19 pandemic. And all that has been as true in emerging markets as it has been for SMBs in the developed world.

Tunde Kehinde has had a front-row seat witnessing and responding to that crisis. He’s the CEO and co-founder of Lidya, a startup out of Nigeria that has built a platform for SMBs to apply for and get loans and other financial services, aimed at markets on the African continent and increasingly also in emerging economies in Europe. We sat down with him as part of our new virtual Disrupt series, where we have been connecting with some of the biggest movers and shakers in the tech world beyond the US.

Kehinde has been called the “Jeff Bezos of Africa”, a funny title you might think sounds like tenuous or cheesy marketing until you know more about his history in business, the impact it’s had so far (he’s not that old) in the region, and until you hear him speak.

Kehinde — born in Nigeria and exposed to a lot of the US way of doing things through university years at Howard and then Harvard — was previously the co-founder of one of the biggest tech startups to have come out of the continent — Jumia — an Amazon-style marketplace that is slowly branching out into a wider web of services like payments, food delivery and more.

Initially incubated by Rocket Internet, Jumia raised hundreds of millions of dollars from VCs, scaled to multiple countries on the continent, and is now traded publicly on Nasdaq with a current market cap of $660 million — modest by Amazon standards maybe, but a real milestone for African tech.

That alone would probably merit some to wonder if he’s the “next Bezos”, but it’s been his follow-up act at Lidya that paints a broader picture. In short, there is a lot more potential for payment and online commerce services in emerging markets, and focusing on helping small businesses cross the digital chasm is not just a good business opportunity, but a developmental one, too. Capital, specifically the lack thereof, has always been a huge hindrance to growth, and these days it’s an even more critical axiom to address.

You can see the full Disrupt conversation below, where Kehinde covers a lot of ground, not just about his company but about how tech is evolving in the region.

The breakout success of a handful of startups — which include the likes of new digital payments unicorn Interswitch as well as Jumia — venturing into multiple jurisdictions, he noted, is seeing more VCs also increase their interest and investment activity. He thinks the next very important step is to have more exits, which will confer a different kind of credibility and liquidity to the market.

And there should be, he added: There are few places like the African continent that is a blank slate, where you can come in quickly and build a really dominant player, if you have the right capital and team, he said.

“It’s night and day between seven years ago and now,” he added, but also admitted that while financial services and the related world of e-commerce are obvious places to start — it was also the classic category to tackle first in the US and Europe many years earlier — he still sees more interest from VCs in the U.S., Europe and Latin America.

His advice for VCs?

“If I were a VC I would look at what have been the biggest successes from folks like me,” he said. “Seeing Jumia and others going public, as more of these things happen the more you can develop a great policy and that will make it easier. I launched, I got to scale, I got return on investment, the right infrastructure can be built.”

Tune in here to hear him also talk about China and how to handle investment from outside Africa; what other big deals in loans for SMBs, such as Kabbage getting acquired by Amex, mean for startups like Lidya, the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic on business; identifying opportunities beyond your immediate region; and more.

Interswitch to revive its Africa venture fund, CEO confirms

Pan-African fintech company Interswitch plans to fire up its corporate venture arm again—according to CEO Mitchell Elegbe—who spoke at TechCrunch Disrupt on Wednesday.

The Nigerian founder didn’t offer much new on the Lagos-based firm’s expected IPO, but he did reveal Interswitch will revive investments in African startups.

Founded by Elegbe in 2002, Interswitch pioneered the infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s then predominantly cash-based economy. The company now provides much of the rails for Nigeria’s online banking system that serves Africa’s largest economy and population of 200 million people. Interswitch has expanded to offer personal and business payment products in 23 Africa countries.

The fintech firm achieved unicorn status in 2019 after a $200 million equity investment by Visa gave it a $1 billion valuation.

Reviving venture investing

Interswitch, which is well beyond startup phase, launched a $10 million venture arm in 2015 that has been dormant since 2016, after it acquired Vanso—a Nigerian fintech security company.

But Interswitch will soon be back in the business of making startup bets and acquisitions, according to Elegbe. “We’ve just certified a team and the plan is to begin to make those kinds of investments again.”

He offered a glimpse into the new fund’s focus. “This time around we want to make financial investments and also leverage the network that Interswitch has and put that at the disposal of these companies,” Elegbe told TechCrunch.

“We’ll be very selective in the companies we invest in. They should be companies that Interswitch clearly as an entity can add value to. They should be companies that help accelerate growth by the virtue of what we do and the customers that we have,” he said.

Recent venture events in African tech have likely pressed Interswitch to get back in the investing arena. As an ecosystem, VC on the continent has increased (roughly) by a factor of four over last five years, to around $2 billion in 2019. But most of that has come from single-entity investment funds, while corporate venture funding (and tech M&A activity) has remained light. That’s shifted over the last several months and the entire uptick has occurred in African fintech around entities that could be viewed as Interswitch competitors.

In July, Dubai’s Network International acquired Kenya -based payment mobile payment processing company DPO for $288 million. Shortly after the acquisition, DPO’s CEO Eran Feinstein said the company would pursue more African acquisitions on its own. In June, another mobile-money payment processor, MFS Africa, acquired digital finance company Beyonic. And in August, South Africa’s Standard Bank—Africa’s largest by assets and lending—acquired a stake in fintech security firm TradeSafe.

Since the rise of Safaricom’s dominant M-Pesa mobile money product in Kenya, fintech in Africa has become infinitely larger and more competitive. The sector has hundreds of startups and now receives nearly 50% of all VC investment on the continent.

The opportunity investors and founders are chasing is bringing Africa’s large unbanked population and underbanked consumers and SMEs online. Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data, and mobile-based finance platforms have presented the best use-cases to shift that across the region.

Interswitch has established itself as a leader in the Africa’s digital finance race. But it’s hard to envision how it can maintain or extend that role without an active venture arm that invests in and acquires innovative, young fintech startups.

No news on IPO

Elegbe had less to offer on Interswitch’s long-anticipated IPO. Asked if the company still planned to list publicly, he offered up a non-answer answer. “At this point in time we’re focused on growing the business and creating value for our customers and that is the our primary focus.”

When pressed “yes or no” on whether an IPO was still a possibility Elegbe confirmed it was. “We have private equity investors and at some point in the life of the business they want exits.” he said. “When it is time for them to exit there are various options on the table and an IPO is an option.”

There’s been talk of an Interswitch IPO for years. In 2016, Elegbe told TechCrunch a dual-listing on the Lagos and London Stock Exchanges was possible. Then word came through other Interswitch channels that it was delayed due to recession and currency volatility in Nigeria in 2017. In November 2019, a source with knowledge of the situation told TechCrunch on background, “an IPO is still very much in the cards; likely sometime in the first half of 2020.” Then came the Covid-19 crisis and the accompanying global economic slump, which may have delayed Interswitch’s IPO plans yet again.

If and when the company goes public, it would be a major event for Nigerian and African fintech. No VC backed fintech firm on the continent has listed globally. Exits for Interswitch’s investors would likely attract to Nigeria and broader Africa more VC from major funds—many of whom remain on the fence about startup opportunities on the continent.

Focus on Africa

On global product expansion, Interswitch plans to maintain an African focus for now, Elegbe explained. “There are enough opportunities for Interswitch on the continent. We’d like to be in as many African countries as possible…and position Interswitch as the (financial) gateway to the continent,” he said.

Elegbe explained the company would continue to work through alliances with major financial services firms to open up global financial access for its African client base. In August 2019, Interswitch launched a partnership that allows its Verve cardholders to make payments on Discover’s global network.

CEO Mitchell Elegbe concluded his Disrupt session with some perspective on balancing the stigmas and possibilities of doing business in Nigeria. Over recent years the country has shifted to become an unofficial hub for big tech expansion, VC investment, and startup formation in Africa. But Nigeria continues to have a difficult operating environment with regard to infrastructure and is often associated with political corruption and instability in its Northeast region due to the Boko Haram insurgency.

“Nigeria has a very large population and a very large market. We have lots of challenges that need to be solved, but it makes sense to me that lots of money is finding its way to Nigeria because the opportunity is there,” he said.

Elegbe’s advice to tech investors considering the country, “Don’t take a short-termist view. There are good people on the ground doing fantastic work—honest people who want to make impact. You need to  seek those people out.”