HMBradley raises $18.25 million planting a flag as LA’s entrant into the challenger bank business

With $90 million in deposits and $18.25 million in new financing, HMBradley is making moves as the Los Angeles-based entrant into the challenger bank competition.

LA is home to a growing community of financial services startups and HMBradley is quickly taking its place among the leaders with a novel twist on the banking business.

Unlike most banking startups that woo customers with easy credit and savvy online user interfaces, HMBradley is pitching a better savings account.

The company offers up to 3% interest on its savings accounts, much higher than most banks these days, and it’s that pitch that has won over consumers and investors alike, according to the company’s co-founder and chief executive, Zach Bruhnke.

With climbing numbers on the back of limited marketing, Bruhnke said raising the company’s latest round of financing was a breeze. 

“They knew after the first call that they wanted to do it,” Brunke said of the negotiations with the venture capital firm Acrew, a venture firm whose previous exposure to fintech companies included backing the challenger bank phenomenon which is Chime . “It was a very different kind of fundraise for us. Our seed round was a terrible, treacherous 16-month fundraise,” Brunke said.

For Acrew’s part, the company actually had to call Chime’s founder to ensure that the company was okay with the venture firm backing another entrant into the banking business. Once the approval was granted, Brunke said the deal was smooth sailing.

Acrew, Chime, and HMBradley’s founders see enough daylight between the two business models that investing in one wouldn’t be a conflict of interest with the other. And there’s plenty of space for new entrants in the banking business, Bruhnke said. “It’s a very, very large industry as a whole,” he said.

As the company grows its deposits, Bruhnke said there will be several ways it can leverage its capital. That includes commercial lending on the back end of HMBradley’s deposits and other financial services offerings to grow its base.

For now, it’s been wooing consumers with one click credit applications and the high interest rates it offers to its various tiers of savers.

“When customers hit that 3% tier they get really excited,” Bruhnke said. “If you’re saving money and you’re not saving to HMBradley then you’re losing money.”

The money that HMBradley raised will be used to continue rolling out its new credit product and hiring staff. It already poached the former director of engineering at Capital One, Ben Coffman, and fintech thought leader Saira Rahman, the company said. 

In October, the company said, deposits doubled month-over-month and transaction volume has grown to over $110 million since it launched in April. 

Since launching the company’s cash back credit card in July, HMBradley has been able to pitch customers on 3% cash back for its highest tier of savers — giving them the option to earn 3.5% on their deposits.

The deposit and lending capabilities the company offers are possible because of its partnership with the California-based Hatch Bank, the company said.

Mobile banking app Current raises $131M Series C, tops 2 million members

U.S. challenger bank Current, which has doubled its member base in less than six months, announced this morning it raised $131 million in Series C funding, led by Tiger Global Management. The additional financing brings Current to over $180 million in total funding to date, and gives the company a valuation of $750 million.

The round also brought in new investors, Sapphire Ventures and Avenir. Existing investors returned for the Series C, as well, including Foundation Capital, Wellington Management Company and QED.

Current had originally began as a teen debit card controlled by parents, but expanded to offer personal checking accounts last year, using the same underlying banking technology. The service today competes with a range of mobile banking apps, offering features like free overdrafts, no minimum balance requirements, faster direct deposits, instant spending notifications, banking insights, check deposits using your phone’s camera, and other now-standard baseline features for challenger banks.

In August 2020, Current debuted a points rewards program in an effort to better differentiate its service from the competition, which as of this month now includes Google Pay.

When Current raised its Series B last fall, it had over 500,000 accounts on its service. Today, it touts over 2 million members. Revenue has also grown, increasing by 500% year-over-year, the company noted today.

“We have seen a demonstrated need for access to affordable banking with a best-in-class mobile solution that Current is uniquely suited to provide,” said Current founder and CEO Stuart Sopp, in a statement about the fundraise. “We are committed to building products specifically to improve the financial outcomes of the millions of hard-working Americans who live paycheck to paycheck, and whose needs are not being properly served by traditional banks. With this new round of funding we will continue to expand on our mission, growth and innovation to find more ways to get members their money faster, help them spend it smarter and help close the financial inequality gap,” he added.

The additional funds will be used to further develop and expand Current’s mobile banking offerings, the company says.

N26 launches mid-tier subscription plan for €4.90 per month

Challenger bank N26 is adding a third subscription product called N26 Smart. N26 Smart is designed to be a mid-tier subscription plan with advanced banking features but without a travel insurance package.

In Europe, in addition to the free plan, N26 already provides two subscription tiers called N26 You and N26 Metal. N26 You costs €9.90 per month and comes with higher limits, such as five free ATM withdrawals instead of three and free withdrawals in foreign currencies.

With an N26 You account, you can create sub-accounts (N26 Spaces), share them with other N26 users or use them to save money. As an N26 You subscriber, you also get a travel insurance package with medical travel insurance, trip and flight insurance and more. You can also access some partner offers.

N26 Metal is the most expensive plan and costs €16.90 per month. In addition to everything in N26 You, you get car rental insurance when you’re abroad and phone insurance. As the name suggests, you also get a metal card.

The new N26 Smart subscription costs €4.90 and works well for people who don’t need travel insurance. With an N26 Smart subscription, you can create up to ten sub-accounts. You get five free ATM withdrawals per month. You can also call N26 support directly in addition to in-app support chat.

N26 is launching a new round-up feature for N26 Smart users. It lets you round each purchase up to the nearest Europe and save it in a separate sub-account. N26 Smart account also access colorful debit cards — the same colors as N26 You.

This is just a first step as N26 plans to revamp its subscription products altogether. In the near future, N26 You will become N26 International. There will be more features focused on borderless banking. N26 Metal will become N26 Unlimited.

As for the free N26 Standard account, the company wants to focus on digital cards. Some users are going to switch to the N26 Smart plan to keep some of the features that they’ve been using with a free account. That move should help the company’s bottom line.

Image Credits: N26

YC-backed Cashfree raises $35.3 million for its payments platform

Cashfree, an Indian startup that offers a wide-range of payments services to businesses, has raised $35.3 million in a new financing round as the profitable firm looks to broaden its offering.

The Bangalore-based startup’s Series B was led by London-headquartered private equity firm Apis Partners (which invested through its Growth Fund II), with participation from existing investors Y Combinator and Smilegate Investments. The new round brings the startup’s to-date raise to $42 million.

Cashfree kickstarted its journey in 2015 as a solution for restaurants in Bangalore that needed an efficient way for their delivery personnel to collect cash from customers.

Akash Sinha and Reeju Datta, the founders of Cashfree, did not have any prior experience with payments. When their merchants asked if they could build a service to accept payments online, the founders quickly realized that Cashfree could serve a wider purpose.

In the early days, Cashfree also struggled to court investors, many of whom did not think a payments processing firm could grow big — and do so fast enough. But the startup’s fate changed after Y Combinator accepted its application, even though the founders had missed the deadline and couldn’t arrive to join the batch on time. Y Combinator later financed Cashfree’s seed round.

Fast-forward five years, Cashfree today offers more than a dozen products and services and helps over 55,000 businesses disburse salary to employees, accept payments online, set up recurring payments and settle marketplace commissions.

Some of its customers include financial services startup Cred, online grocer BigBasket, food delivery platform Zomato, insurers HDFC Ergo and Acko and travel ticketing service provider Ixigo. The startup works with several banks and also offers integrations with platforms such as Shopify, PayPal and Amazon Pay.

Based on its offerings, Cashfree today competes with scores of startups, but it has an edge — if not many. Cashfree has been profitable for the past three years, Sinha, who serves as the startup’s chief executive, told TechCrunch in an interview.

“Cashfree has maintained a leadership position in this space and is now going through a period of rapid growth fuelled by the development of unique and innovative products that serve the needs of its customers,” Udayan Goyal, co-founder and a managing partner at Apis, said in a statement.

The startup processed over $12 billion in payments volumes in the financial year that ended in March. Sinha said part of the fresh fund will be deployed in R&D so that Cashfree can scale its technology stack and build more services, including those that can digitize more offline payments for its clients.

Cashfree is also working on building cross-border payments solutions to explore opportunities in emerging markets, he said.

“We still see payments as an evolving industry with its own challenges and we would be investing in next-gen payments as well as banking tech to make payments processing easier and more reliable. With the solid foundation of in-house technologies, tech-driven processes and in-depth industry knowledge, we are confident of growing Cashfree to be the leader in the payments space in India and internationally,” he said.

Daily Crunch: Roblox is going public

Roblox opens its books, Snap makes an acquisition and Pfizer and BioNTech seek regulatory approval for their vaccine. This your Daily Crunch for November 20, 2020.

The big story: Roblox is going public

The child-friendly gaming company filed confidentially to go public in October, but it only published its S-1 document with financial information late yesterday.

How do the numbers look? Well, Roblox is certainly growing quickly — total revenue increased 56% in 2019, and then another 68% in the first three quarters of 2020, when it saw $588.7 million in revenue. At the same time, losses are growing as well, nearly quadrupling to $203.2 million during those same three quarters.

The company also acknowledged that its success depends on its ability to “provide a safe online environment” for children. Otherwise, “business will suffer dramatically.”

The tech giants

Snap acquired Voisey, an app to create music tracks overlaying your own vocals — Voisey users can apply audio filters to their voices, and they can browse and view other people’s Voisey tracks.

Despite commitment to anti-racism, Uber’s Black employee base has decreased — Uber’s latest diversity report shows a decline in the overall representation of Black employees in the U.S.

Google, Facebook and Twitter threaten to leave Pakistan over censorship law — This comes after Pakistan’s government granted blanket powers to local regulators to censor digital content.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Loadsmart raises $90M to further consolidate its one-stop freight and logistics platform — Loadsmart offers booking for freight transportation across land, rail and through ports, all from a single online portal.

ORIX invests $60M in Israeli crowdfunding platform OurCrowd — OurCrowd also says that the two groups will collaborate to create financial products and investment opportunities for the Japanese and global market.

Kea raises $10M to build AI that helps restaurants answer the phone — CEO Adam Ahmad says the startup has created a “virtual cashier” who can do the initial intake with customers, process most routine orders and bring in a human employee when needed.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

If you didn’t make $1B this week, you are not doing VC right — Don’t yell at me, Danny Crichton said it!

Why is GoCardless COO Carlos Gonzalez-Cadenas pivoting to become a full-time VC — “I think this is the best moment in entrepreneurship in Europe.”

What is Roblox worth? — A deeper dive into Roblox’s numbers.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Pfizer and BioNTech to submit request for emergency use approval of their COVID-19 vaccine today — These emergency approvals still require supporting information and safety data, but they are fast-tracked relative to the full, formal and more permanent approval process.

Mixtape podcast: Building a structural DEI response to a systemic issue with Y-Vonne Hutchinson — Hutchinson is the CEO of ReadySet, a consulting firm that works with companies to create more inclusive and equitable work environments.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

ORIX invests $60M in Israeli crowdfunding platform OurCrowd

Japan-based financial services group ORIX Corporation today announced that it has made a $60 million strategic investment into the Israeli crowdsourcing platform OurCrowd. In return, the crowdfunding platform will provide the firm with access to its startup network. OurCrowd also says that the two groups will collaborate to create financial products and investment opportunities for the Japanese and global market, including access to its venture funds and specific companies in the OurCrowd portfolio.

ORIX is a global leader in diversified business and financial services who will strengthen OurCrowd in many ways,” OurCrowd CEO Jon Medved said in today’s announcement. “We are enthusiastic about the potential to further transform the venture capital asset class together and provide a strong bridge for our innovative companies to the important Asian markets.”

While ORIX already operates in 37 countries, including the U.S., this is the company’s first investment in Israel. It comes at a time where Japanese investments in Israel are already surging. And earlier this year, Israel’s flag carrier El Al was about to launch direct flights to Tokyo, for example, and while the pandemic canceled those plans, it’s a clear sign of the expanding business relations between the two countries.

“We are excited about investing in OurCrowd, Israel’s most active venture investor and one of the world’s most innovative venture capital platforms,” ORIX UK CEO Kiyoshi Habiro said. “We intend to be active partners with OurCrowd and help them accelerate their already impressive growth, while bringing the best of Israeli tech to Japan’s large industrial and financial sectors.”

So far, OurCrowd has made investments in 220 companies across its 22 funds. Some of its most successful exits include Beyond Meat and Lemonade, JUMP Bike, Briefcam and Argus. ORIX, too, has quite a diverse portfolio, with investments that range from real estate to banking and energy services.

Greece’s Marathon Venture Capital completes first close for Fund II, reaching $47M

Marathon Venture Capital in Athens, Greece has completed the first closing of its second fund, reaching the €40m / $47M mark. Backing the new fund is the European Investment Fund, HDBI, as well as corporates, family offices and HNWIs around the world (plus many Greek founders). It plans to invest in Seed-stage startups from €1m to 1.5m initial tickets for 15-20% of equity.

Team changes include Thaleia Misailidou being promoted to Principal, and Chris Gasteratos is promoted to Associate.

Marathon’s most prominent portfolio company is Netdata, which last year raised a $17 million Series A led by Bain Capital, and later raised another $14m from Bessemer. On the success side, Uber’s pending $1.4B+ acquisition of BMW/Daimler’s mobility group was in part driven by a Marathon-backed startup, Taxibeat, which was earlier acquired by Daimler.

Partners George Tziralis and Panos Papadopoulos tell me the fund is focused generally on enterprise/B2B, plus “Greek founders, anywhere”.

Highlights of Fund One’s investments include:

  • Netdata (leading infra monitoring OSS, backed by Bessemer & Bain)
  • Lenses (leader in DataOps, backed by 83North)
  • Hack The Box (cybersecurity adversarial training labs)
  • Learnworlds (business-in-a-box for course creators)
  • Causaly (cause-and-effect discovery in pharma)
  • Augmenta (autonomous precision agriculture)

Tziralis tells me the majority of its next ten companies have already raised a Series A round.

Tziralis and Papadopoulos have been key players in the Greek startups scene, backing many of the first startups to emerge from the country over 13 years ago. And they were enthusiastic backers of our TechCrunch Athens meetup many years ago.

Three years ago, they launched Marathon Venture Capital to take their efforts to the next level. Fund I invested in 10 companies with the first fund, and most have raised a Series A. The portfolio as a whole has raised 4x their total invested amount and maintains an estimated total enterprise value of $350 million.

They’ve also been running the “Greeks in Tech” meetups all over the world – Berlin to London to New York to San Francisco, and many more locations in between, connecting with Greek founders.

Bella is a new challenger bank with a text-based interface

Meet Bella, a new challenger bank launching on November 30th. The company is trying to differentiate itself with two distinctive features. First, you can interact with the app using keywords and text commands. Second, Bella is trying to build a community that helps each other to differentiate its product from soulless monolithic banking services.

Let’s start with the basics. When you open a Bella account, you receive a rainbow debit card that works on the Visa network. You get a checking account as well as the ability to create savings accounts. Behind the sene, Bella works with nbkc bank for the banking infrastructure. Accounts are FDIC insured up to $5 million.

Your card works with Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay. There are no foreign transaction fees and Bella reimburses all ATM fees. There are no account minimums and service fees either.

Image Credits: Bella

But the app doesn’t look like your average banking app. There’s a text field at the bottom of the screen at all times. If you tap that field and enter a keyword, you can do all the interactions you’d expect to do. That feature is called Socratex.

This isn’t a chatbot, it’s more like a command line interface. For instance, if you type “Send”, it’ll suggest “Send money”. You can then enter an amount and hit next. After that, you can type the name of a contact, or add a contact, and then hit send.

You don’t have to find the right menu and hit the right button. The app tries to guide you so that you can construct a full sentence describing your intent. Bella uses LivePerson for that text-based interface. LivePerson is also Bella’s strategic backer.

Image Credits: Bella

And then, there is the Karma account. Over a hundred years ago in Naples, people started ordering two espressos and drinking just one. The second one would be a caffè sospeso. A poor person could ask for a caffè sospeso later that day and get a free coffee.

Bella is basically doing the same thing with its Karma account. Users can deposit up to $20 into a personal Karma account. Another user could use its Bella card and get a notification saying that their purchase is covered by someone else’s Karma account.

Similarly, Bella is introducing a randomized cashback program. The company randomly picks purchases and sends you back 5 to 200% in cashback.

When it comes to savings accounts, you can open as many savings accounts as you want and set some unconventional rules. For instance, you can set up a rule that puts some money aside when it’s sunny, when your sports team is winning, etc.

As you can see, Bella wants to introduce some randomized events so that you get surprised by your own bank account. The company wants to give back $1 million in cashback over the first four weeks on the market. Let’s see if that could turn the financial service into a viral experience.

Payments app True Balance raises $28 million to reach more underbanked users in India

True Balance, a South Korean startup which runs an eponymous financial services app aimed at tens of millions of users in small cities and towns in India, said on Wednesday it has raised $28 million in a new financing round and expects to turn a profit next year.

SoftBank Ventures Asia, Naver, BonAngels, Daesung Private Equity, and Shinhan Capital financed the five-year-old startup’s Series D financing round. The startup, which has headquarters in Seoul and Gurgaon, has raised about $90 million to date.

True Balance began its life as an app to help users easily find their mobile balance, or top up pre-pay mobile credit. But in its five-year journey, the startup has added a range of financial services including online lending and ability to pay utility bills. Online lending is its core business today.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Charlie Lee, founder and chief executive of True Balance, said the startup has disbursed over $13.5 million in small loans to over 6.7 million consumers. The size of these loans vary from $6.75 to $675, he said.

Its customers don’t have a credit score, which makes it complicated for them to get a loan from financial institutions such as banks. Lee explained that True Balance, which formerly operated as Balancehero India, looks at alternative data to determine a user’s credit worthiness.

Hundreds of millions of Indian today don’t have a credit score, and without this, they can’t avail a range of services from banks. Scores of startups in India and Southeast Asia are experimenting with alternative data such as a phone a consumer owns and the transactions she makes and hundreds of other data points to determine these users’ credit worthiness.

Lee did not reveal how many users it has lent money to have returned the amount, but said the figure was so high that the startup is open to engaging with other firms who are looking to make use of alternative data but don’t have the tech stack.

The startup told TechCrunch last year that it was nearing profitability — a milestone it now hopes to reach by the second quarter of next year. Lee said the coronavirus, which has severely impacted the financial services sector, also hurt True Balance’s business.

Payments business in India remains a category that has yet to fully recover from the coronavirus pandemic and the sector at large won’t be profitable for at least another three years, analysts at Goldman Sachs wrote in a report they sent to clients earlier this month.

“Before the coronavirus, our business was growing very fast,” said Lee. “The coronavirus and moratorium (enforced by the nation’s central bank) hit us. We utilized this time to improve our collection process and other aspects of the business.”

In the last three months, True Balance has started to grow again, Lee said, claiming a 300% surge. The startup continues to run a range of other services including the ability to book train tickets and e-commerce and is also working on insurance.

“We will continue focusing on non-online payment users, non-credit score users, people who deserve our help, but need a way to get to it,” he said.

The fresh capital will be deployed to make the startup reach the break-even point and then profitability, he said. True Balance is also working to reach more underbanked users in India.

India’s insurance platform Turtlemint raises $30 million

Turtlemint, an Indian startup that is helping consumers identify and purchase the most appropriate insurance policies for them, has raised $30 million in a new financing round as it looks to reach more users in small cities and towns in the world’s second largest internet market.

The new round, the five-year-old Mumbai-headquartered startup’s Series D, was led by GGV Capital . American Family Ventures, MassMutual Ventures and SIG, and existing investors Blume Ventures, Sequoia Capital India, Nexus Venture Partners, Dream Incubator and Trifecta Capital also participated in the round, which brings Turtlemint’s total to-date raise to $55 million.

Only a fraction of India’s 1.3 billion people currently have access to insurance. According to rating agency ICRA, insurance products had reached less than 3% of the population as of 2017. An average Indian makes about $2,100 a year, according to the World Bank. ICRA estimated that of those Indians who had purchased an insurance product, they were spending less than $50 on it in 2017.

A range of startups in India are trying to disrupt this market. Analysts at Goldman Sachs estimated the online insurance market in India — which in recent years has attracted several major giants including Amazon and Paytm — to be worth $3 billion in a report they recently sent to clients.

Another major reason why existing insurance firms are struggling to sell to consumers is because they are too reliant on on-ground advisors.

Turtlemint co-founders Anand Prabhudesai (left) and Dhirendra Mahyavanshi pose for a picture (Turtlemint)

Instead of bypassing these advisors, Turtlemint is embracing them. It works with over 100,000 such agents, equipping them with digital tools to offer wider and more relevant recommendations to consumers and speed-up the onboarding process, which has traditionally required a lot of paperwork.

These advisors, who continue to command over 90% of all insurance sales in the country, “play a critical role in bridging the gap in tier 2 and 3 towns and cities, where low physical presence of insurance companies greatly impacts seamless access to insurance products and information,” the startup said.

Turtlemint works with over 40 insurance companies in India and serves as a broker, charging these firms a commission for policies it sells. The startup said it has amassed more than 1.5 million customers.

“By developing products for the micro-entrepreneurs and the rising middle class, Turtlemint has an opportunity to have a positive impact on India’s economy,” said Hans Tung, Managing Partner at GGV Capital, in a statement. “Dhirendra, Anand, and their team built an incredible platform that enables over 100,000 mom-and-pop financial advisors to serve consumers’ best interests with digital tools, helping middle-class families in India get insured with the best products available.”

In an interview with TechCrunch, Turtlemint co-founder Anand Prabhudesai said the startup will deploy the fresh capital to grow its network of advisors and improve its technology stack to further improve the experience for consumers. The startup today also offers training to these advisors and has built tools to help them digitally reach potential customers.

“Continuous education is a very important aspect of being a successful financial entrepreneur. To this end, we have created an online education product with a wide range of courses on financial products, advice-based sales techniques and other soft skills. Our content is now available in 7 regional languages and over 20,000 learners are active each month on our edtech platform. A lot of these are first-time advisors who are taking their first steps towards starting their advisory business. Our target is to create a million successful financial entrepreneurs over the next 3-5 years,” he said.