Singapore fintech startup Instarem closes $41M Series C for global growth

Singapore’s Instarem, a fintech startup that helps banks and consumers send money overseas at lower cost, has closed a $41 million Series C financing round to go after global expansion opportunities.

The four-year-old company announced a first close of $20 million last November, and it has now doubled that tally (and a little extra) thanks to an additional capital injection led by Vertex Ventures’ global growth fund and South Korea’ Atinum Investment. Crypto company Ripple, which has partnered with Instarem for its xRapid product, also took part in the round, Instarem CEO Prajit Nanu confirmed to TechCrunch, although he declined to reveal the precise amount invested. More broadly, the round means that Instarem has now raised $59.5 million from investors to date.

The company specializes in moving money between countries in Asia in a similar way to TransferWise although, unlike TransferWise, its focus is on banks as customers rather than purely consumers. Today, it covers 50 countries and it has offices in Singapore, Mumbai, Lithuania, London and Seattle.

Instarem said it plans to spend the money on expansion into Latin America, where it will open a regional office, and double down on Asia by going after money licenses in countries like Japan and Indonesia. The company is also on the cusp of adding prepaid debit card capabilities, which will allow it to issue cards to consumers in 25 countries and more widely offer the option to its banking customers. That’s thanks to a deal with Visa .

Further down the line, the company continues to focus on an exit via IPO in 2021. That’s been a consistent talking point for Nanu, who has been fairly outspoken on his desire to take the company public. That’s included shunning acquisition offers. As TechCrunch revealed last year, Instarem declined a buyout offer from one of Southeast Asia’s tech unicorns. Commenting on the offer, Nanu said it simply “wasn’t the right timing for us.”

Grab launches SME loans and micro-insurance in Southeast Asia

In its latest move beyond ride-hailing, Southeast Asia’s Grab has started to offer financing to SMEs and micro-insurance to its drivers.

The launch comes just weeks after Grab raised $1.5 billion from the Vision Fund as part of a larger $5 billion Series H funding round that’ll be used to battle rival Go-Jek, which is vying with Grab to become the top on-demand app for Southeast Asia’s 600 million-plus consumers.

Grab acquired Uber’s Southeast Asia business in 2018 and it has spent the past year or so pushing a ‘super app’ strategy. That’s essentially an effort to become a daily app for Southeast Asia and, beyond rides, it entails food delivery, payments and other services on demand. Financial services are also a significant chunk of that focus, and now Grab is switching on loans and micro-insurance for the first time.

Initially, the first market is Singapore, but the plan is to expand to Southeast Asia’s five other major markets, Reuben Lai,  who is senior managing director and co-head of Grab Financial, told TechCrunch on the sidelines of the Money20/20 conference in Singapore. Lai declined to provide a timeframe for the expansion.

The company announced its launch into financial services last year and that, Lai confirmed, was a purely offline effort. Now the new financial products announced today will be available from within the Grab app itself.

Grab is also planning to develop a ‘marketplace’ of financial products that will allow other financial organizations to promote services to its 130 million registered users. Grab doesn’t provide figures for its active user base.

Grab announced a platform play last summer that allows selected partners to develop services that sit within its app. Some services have included grocery delivers from Happy Fresh, video streaming service Hooq, and health services from China’s Ping An.

South Africa’s FlexClub raises $1.2M, partners with Uber Mexico

FlexClub, a South African startup that matches investors and drivers to cars for ride-hailing services, closed a $1.2 million seed round led by CRE Venture Capital.

The company will use the financing to add team members and expand off the continent through a partnership with Uber Mexico.

The move comes as Africa’s tech-transit space continues to produce unique mobility solutions shaped around local needs.

FlexClub touts itself as a “gig economy investment platform” that is creating new asset classes in emerging markets, according to chief executive and co-founder Tinashe Ruzane.

That asset class, for now, is ride-hail vehicles. FlexClub allows investors to go on the site and purchase a car (ultimately managed and serviced by FlexClub). The startup then connects that car to an Uber driver who uses earnings to pay a weekly rental charge.

Those fees generate monthly, fixed-rate interest income for the investor. The driver has the option of buying the car after the 12 months, with a descending purchase price over time.

FlexClub’s platform manages the investment, rental income, and disbursement of funds across all parties. The startup also handles insurance, maintenance, and upkeep of the cars.

Ruzane envisions this as a model to finance multiple assets classes in emerging markets — where lending options are fewer for individuals who may not have credit histories.

“Our goal is to make this completely passive… where investors can invest in different kinds of assets on our platform, login to a dash, and see this is how my five cars in South Africa are doing, my vans in Mexico, my motorbikes in Indonesia — with a diversified portfolio around the world,” he explained.

FlexClub currently operates in South Africa and has relationships with several car dealers. It generates revenue by charging a percentage of the rental income to investor club members. “We don’t disclose revenue figures but we have $3 million in assets under management in South Africa,” Ruzane said.

Nairobi based Savannah Fund and South African angel investor Michael Jordaan joined lead investor CRE in the $1.2 million round.

“We think there’s a transformation of urban mobility in frontier markets…from Uber to scooters to motorbike markets,” says CRE Venture Capital partner Pardon Makumbe. “There’s also a massive young international employee population that is ready to work for Uber or other fulfillment and logistics companies…but the price point to own the producing asset, i.e., a car, can be prohibitive,” he said.

Makumbe highlighted informal scenarios where ride-hail drivers in markets such as South Africa borrow cars from friends or family members on uncertain terms. “FlexClub is solving this supply-demand problem by productizing and standardizing the exchange between asset owners and those who use the asset,” he said.

FlexClub will begin work matching investors to cars and Uber drivers in Mexico in April. A representative of Uber Mexico confirmed the partnership to TechCrunch.

FlexClub spun off of Ruzane’s time at Uber as head of vehicle solutions for EMEA—where he worked on programs to extract the friction out of driver, car arrangements. On why the global ride-hail company didn’t hold programs like FlexClub in house, “I think the board took the view that Uber should not be directly involved in the provision of vehicles,” Ruzane said.

That paved the way for him and partners Rudolf Vavruch and Marlon Gallardo to co-found FlexClub in 2018. Ruzane drew inspiration for the startup from U.S. digital marketplace startups, such as Roofstock.com. He also underscored emerging market specific supply-demand and credit gaps as influences for founding FlexClub.

Africa’s digital mobility markets have produced some unique product options for Uber and other ride-hail companies. Uber Africa was early to adopt cash payments (as a way to attract card-less passengers) and has experimented with image based direction systems. Uber Africa and Taxify have also joined startups such as Nigeria’s Gokada and Uganda’s Safeboda to offer motorcycle and tuk-tuk ride-hail services in Africa—adapting to common use of two and three wheel taxis on the continent.

Those sub-sectors are also on the table for FlexClub, according to CEO Tinashe Ruzane. “We’re starting with cars…but expect to move to other asset classes affecting gig workers in emerging markets, including other transit options,” he said.

Targeting payday lenders, Branch adds pay-on-demand features for hourly workers

Branch, the scheduling and pay management app for hourly workers, has added a new pay-on-demand service called Pay, which is now available to anyone who downloads the Branch app.

It’s an attempt to provide a fee-based alternative to payday lending, where borrowers charge exorbitant rates to lenders on short-term loans or cash advances. Borrowers can often wind up paying anywhere from 200 percent to more than 3,000 percent on short-term payday loans.

The Pay service, which was previously only available to select users from a waitlist at companies like Dunkin’, Taco Bell and Target (which are Branch customers), is now available to anyone in the United States and gives anyone the opportunity to get paid for the hours they have worked in a given pay period.

Branch, which began its corporate life as Branch Messenger, started as a scheduling and shift management tool for large retailers, restaurants and other businesses with hourly workers. When the company added a wage-tracking service, it began to get a deeper insight into the financially precarious lives of its users, according to chief executive, Atif Siddiqi.

“We thought, if we can give them a portion of their paycheck in advance it would be a big advantage with their productivity,” Siddiqi says. 

The company is working with Plaid, the fintech unicorn that debuted five years ago at the TechCrunch Disrupt New York Hackathon, and Cross River Bank, the stealthy financial services provider backstopping almost every major fintech player in America.

“Opening Pay and instant access to earnings to all Branch users continues our mission of creating tools that empower the hourly employee and allow their work lives to meet the demands of their personal lives,” said Siddiqi, in a statement. “Our initial users have embraced this feature, and we look forward to offering Pay to all of our organic users to better engage employees and scale staffing more efficiently.”

Beta users of the Pay service have already averaged roughly 5.5 transactions per month and more than 20 percent higher shift coverage rates compared to non-users, according to the company. Pay isn’t a lending service, technically. It offers a free pay-within-two-days option for users to receive earned but uncollected wages before a scheduled payday.

For users, there’s no integration with a back-end payroll system. Anyone who wants to use Pay just needs to download the Branch app and enter their employer, debit card or payroll card, and bank account (if a user has one). Through its integration with Plaid, Branch has access to almost all U.S. banks and credit unions.

“A lot of these employees at some of these enterprises are unbanked so they get paid on a payroll card,” Siddiqi said. “It’s been a big differentiation for us in the market allowing us to give unbanked users access to the wages that they earn.”

Users on the app can instantly get a $150 cash advance and up to $500 per pay period, according to the company. The Pay service also comes with a wage tracker so employees can forecast their earnings based on their schedule and current wages, a shift-scheduling tool to pick up additional shifts and an overdraft security feature to hold off on repayment withdrawals if it would cause users to overdraw their accounts.

Branch doesn’t charge anything for users who are willing to wait two days to receive their cash, and charges $1.99 for instant deposits.

Siddiqi views the service as a loss leader to get users onto the Branch app and ultimately more enterprise customers onto its scheduling and payment management SaaS platform.

“The way we generate revenue is through our other modules. It’s very sticky… and our other modules complement this concept of Pay,” Siddiqi says. “By combining scheduling and pay we’re providing high rates of shift coverage… now people want to pick up undesirable shifts because they can get paid instantly for those shifts.”

Lyft sets $62-68 price range for its IPO to raise up to $2.1B, will trade as LYFT on Nasdaq

Ride-sharing startup Lyft, as expected, announced this morning that it is kicking off the roadshow for its IPO — setting the clock ticking for its IPO likely in around two weeks. Around that, it also filled in some more details. The stock will trade as “LYFT” on Nasdaq, and the IPO range is currently set for between $62 and $68 per share to sell 30,770,000 shares of Class A common stock, the company said, raising up to $2.1 billion at the higher end of that range, or $1.9 billion at the lower end.

At the higher end, its valuation will be $23 billion, as we and others reported yesterday, a large jump on its previous $15.1 billion valuation as of its most recent private fundraising.

Lyft also said in its updated S-1 that at the high end of the range, the maximum offering aggregate price — the maximum that it would raise at that range — will be $2,406,214,000 when considering the full range of Class A stock that will be registered, 35,385,500 shares.

(In addition to the 30,770,000 shares of Class A common stock, the company said it has an additional 4,615,500 shares in options for the underwriters, adding up to the 35 million share figure. J.P. Morgan Securities LLC, Credit Suisse Securities (USA) LLC, Jefferies LLC, UBS Securities LLC, Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, Incorporated, RBC Capital Markets, LLC and KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc. are book-running managers for the offering.)

The news kicks off the timer on Lyft’s public listing at a time when all eyes are on how ride-sharing companies will progress to the next stage of their growth, with Uber (valued at around $100 million) also expected to file and go public imminently.

Lyft’s revenues are growing fast — Lyft took $8.1 billion in bookings and made $2.1 billion in revenues in 2018, covering 30.7 million riders and 1.9 million drivers — but the company remains unprofitable. The company posted a net loss of $911.3 million in 2018, a figure that has grown in line with revenues, but notably shrunk proportionately. In 2016, revenues were $343.3 million while net loss was $682 million.

This public listing provides a road map for how Lyft can continue to fund its operations and growth while providing liquidity for investors as it continues working on getting into the black.

Lyft said that upon completion of the IPO, CEO and cofounder Logan Green will have 29.31 percent share of the voting power of the outstanding stock, while John Zimmer, cofounder and president, will have 19.45 percent.

More to come.

Startups Weekly: Uber’s headline-grabbing week and sextech at SXSW

I spent the week at SXSW, Austin’s really, really huge technology, music, comedy and film festival. It’s my first year making the trek down here for the event, which I did to interview sextech entrepreneur Lora DiCarlo founder Lora Haddock, whose robotics innovation reward was infamously revoked at this year’s CES.

“I brush my teeth and I masturbate. It’s all normal,” she said, addressing the stigma surrounding female-focused pleasure tech. Haddock, during our chat, also announced the first-ever government grant for a sextech startup, a $99,637 funding for Lora DiCarlo from the state of Oregon. Lora DiCarlo plans to release its first product, the Osé, this fall.

Here’s what happened while I was wondering confused around Austin.

Uber, Uber, Uber

Uber dominated the news cycle this week; here’s the TL;DR. The ride-hailing company is probably, most likely going to unveil its S-1 next month and it’s tying up some loose ends ahead of its big IPO. Uber wants to raise roughly $1 billion at a valuation of between $5 billion and $10 billion for its autonomous vehicles unit — yes, the same one that was burning through $20 million per month. Waymo, similarly, is looking to raise outside capital for the first time for its AV efforts.

Top TPG dealmaker caught in college admissions scandal

Bill McGlashan, who built his career as a top investor at the private equity firm TPG, was fired (or maybe quit?) says the firm after he was caught up in what the Justice Department said is the largest college admissions scandal it has ever prosecuted. Even worse, McGlashan lead TPG’s social impact strategy under the Rise Fund brand, making the charges particularly damning.

Accel gets $2.5B

HotelTonight and Slack stakeholder Accel raised $2.525 billion, sources confirm to TechCrunch; $525 million for its fourteenth early-stage fund, $1.5 billion for its fifth growth fund and $500 million for its second Leaders Fund, or a dedicated pool of capital meant to help the firm strengthen its positions on particularly competitive bets. Plus, 137 Ventures announced its fourth fund with $210 million in committed capital. The firm provides liquidity to founders and early employees of “sustainable, fast-growing, private companies.” In essence, 137 Ventures buys shares directly from employees at unicorn tech companies, like Palantir,  Flexport and Airbnb.

Sam Altman

Last week, we reported Y Combinator president Sam Altman would be stepping down to focus on OpenAI. TechCrunch’s Connie Loizos questions whether he had a positive or negative influence on the accelerator during his presidency. Altman was part of the first YC startup class in 2005 and began working part-time as a YC partner in 2011. He was ultimately made the head of the organization five years ago.

Brian O’Malley’s HotelTonight win

Forerunner Ventures general partner Brian O’Malley went long on HotelTonight and it paid off. For your weekend reading, we thought you might enjoy an oral history from O’Malley about how he stumbled upon HotelTonight and remained connected to the company across its nine-year history.

Here’s your weekly reminder to send me tips, suggestions and more to [email protected] or @KateClarkTweets

Startup cash

VC shakeups 

In an announcement that shocked VC Twitter, Tiger Global announced that Lee Fixel, whom Bill Gurley once said is one of the smartest investors on the scene, is leaving the firm at the end of June. Scott Shleifer and Chase Coleman will continue as co-managers of the portfolios Fixel has overseen, with Shleifer taking over as its head. “Lee has been a driving force behind the expansion of Tiger Global’s private equity investing activities in the United States and India, and he has distinguished himself as a world-class investor across multiple sectors and stages,” the firm stated. And on the hiring front, Canvas Ventures is expanding its team of three general partners to four with the hiring of Mike Ghaffary, a former general partner at Social Capital.

Extra Crunch

Subscribers to TechCrunch’s premium content can learn which types of startups are most often profitable.

Y Combinator’s latest batch

YC demo days are coming up quick. The TechCrunch staff has been meeting with YC startups and documenting their journey through the startup accelerator. I spoke to YourChoice Therapeutics, a startup developing unisex, non-hormonal birth control, and Bottomless, which operates a direct-to-consumer coffee delivery service. TechCrunch’s Lucas Matney wrote about Jetpack Aviation, a YC startup, and its $380,000 flying motorcycle, and Adventurous, an augmented reality scavenger hunt crafted for families. TechCrunch’s Megan Rose Dickey spoke to Ysplit, which wants to make it so you never have to owe anyone money ever again.

Listen to me talk

This week on Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines, Crunchbase News’ editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm and TechCrunch’s Connie Loizos discuss Uber’s IPO and Stash’s big round. Listen here.

Want more TechCrunch newsletters? Sign up here.

Zeus raises $24M to make you a living-as-a-service landlord

Cookie-cutter corporate housing turns people into worker drones. When an employee needs to move to a new city for a few months, they’re either stuck in bland, giant apartment complexes or Airbnbs meant for shorter stays. But Zeus lets any homeowner get paid to host white-collar transient labor. Through its managed ownership model, Zeus takes on all the furnishing, upkeep, and risk of filling the home while its landlords sit back earning cash.

Zeus has quietly risen to a $45 million revenue run rate from renting out 900 homes in 23 cities. That’s up 5X in a year thanks to Zeus’ 150 employees. With a 90 percent occupancy rate, it’s proven employers and their talent want more unique, trustworthy, well-equipped multi-month residences that actually make them feel at home.

Now while Airbnb is distracted with its upcoming IPO, Zeus has raised $24 million to steal the corporate housing market. That includes a previous $2.5 million seed round from Bowery, the new $11.5 million Series A led by Initialized Capital whose partner Garry Tan has joined Zeus’ board, and $10 million in debt to pay fixed costs like furniture. The plan is to roll up more homes, build better landlord portal software, and hammer out partnerships or in-house divisions for cleaning and furnishing.

“In the first decade out of school people used to have two jobs. Now it’s four jobs and it’s trending to five” says Zeus co-founder and CEO Kulveer Taggar. “We think in 10 years, these people won’t be buying furniture.” He imagines they’ll pay a premium for hand-holding in housing, which judging by the explosion in popularity of zero-friction on-demand services, seems like an accurate assessment of our lazy future. Meanwhile, Zeus aims to be “the quantum leap improvement in the experience of trying to rent out your home” where you just punch in your address plus some details and you’re cashing checks 10 days later.

Buying Mom A House Was Step 1

“When I sold my first startup, I bought a home for my mom in Vancouver” Taggar recalls. It was payback for when she let him remortgage her old house while he was in college to buy a condo in Mumbai he’d rent out to earn money. “Despite not having much growing up, my mom was a travel agent and we got to travel a lot” which Taggar says inspired his goal to live nomadically in homes around the world. Zeus could let other live that dream.

Zeus co-founder and CEO Kulveer Taggar

After Oxford and working as an analyst at Deutsche Bank, Taggar built student marketplace Boso before moving to the United States. There, he co-founded auction tool Auctomatic with his cousin Harjeet Taggar and future Stripe co-founder Patrick Collison, went through Y Combinator, and sold it to Live Current Media for $5 million just 10 months later. That gave him the runway to gift a home to his mom and start tinkering on new ideas.

With Y Combinator’s backing again, Taggar started NFC-triggered task launcher Tagstand, which pivoted into app settings configurer Agent, which pivoted into automatic location sharing app Status. But when his co-founder Joe Wong had to move an hour south from San Francisco to Palo Alto, Taggar was dumbfounded by how distracting the process was. Listing and securing a new tenant was difficult, as was finding a medium-term rental without having to deal with exhorbitant prices or sketchy Cragislist. Having seen his former co-founder go on to great success with Stripe’s dead-simple payments integration, Taggar wanted to combine that vision with OpenDoor’s easy home sales to making renting or renting out a place instantaneous. That spawned Zeus.

Stripe Meets OpenDoor To Beat Airbnb

To become a Zeus landlord, you just type in your address, how many bedrooms and bathrooms, and some aesthetic specs, and you get a monthly price quote for what you’ll be paid. Zeus comes in and does a 250-point quality assessment, collects floor plans, furnishes the property, and handles cleaning and maintenance. It works with partners like Helix mattresses, Parachute sheets, and Simple Human trash cans to get bulk rates. “We raised debt because we had these fixed investments into furniture. It’s not as dilutive as selling pure equity” Taggar explains.

Zeus quickly finds a tenant thanks to listings in Airbnb and relationships with employers like Darktrace and ZS Associates with lots of employees moving around. After passing background checks, tenants get digital lock codes and access to 24/7 support in case something doesn’t look right. The goal is to get someone sleeping there in just 10 days. “Traditional corporate housing is $10,000 a month in SF in the summer or at extended stay hotels. Airbnb isn’t well suited [for multi-month stays]. ” Taggar claims. “We’re about half the price of traditional corporate housing for a better product and a better experience.”

Zeus signs minimum two-year leases with landlords and tries to extend them to five years when possible. It gets one free month of rent as is standard for property managers, but doesn’t charge an additional rate. For example, Zeus might lease your home for $4,000 per month but gets the first month free, and rent it out for $5,000 so it earns $60,000 but pays you $44,000. That’s a tidy margin if Zeus can get homes filled fast and hold down its upkeep costs.

“Zeus has been instrumental for my company to start the process of re-location to the Bay Area and to host our visiting employees from abroad now that we are settled” writes Zeus client Meitre’s Luis Caviglia. “I particularly like the ‘hard truths’ featured in every property, and the support we have received when issues arose during our stays.”

At Home, Anywhere

There’s no shortage of competitors chasing this $18 billion market in the US alone. There are the old-school corporations and chains like Oakwood and Barbary Coast that typically rent out apartments from vast, generic complexes at steep rates. Stays over 30 days made up 15 percent of Airbnb’s business last year, but the platform wasn’t designed for peace-of-mind around long-term stays. There are pure marketplaces like UrbanDoor that don’t always take care of everything for the landlord or provide consistent tenant experiences. And then there are direct competitors like $130 million-funded Sonder, $66 million-funded Domio, recently GV-backed 2nd Address, and European entants like MagicStay, AtHomeHotel, and Homelike.

Zeus’ property unit growth

There’s plenty of pie, though. With 330,000 housing units in SF alone, Zeus has plenty of room to grow. The rise of remote work means companies whose employee typically didn’t relocate may now need to bring in distant workers for a multi-month sprint. A recession could make companies more expense-cautious, leading them to rethink putting up staffers in hotels for months on end. Regulatory red tape and taxes could scare landlords away from short-term rentals and towards coprorate housing. And the need to expand into new businesses could tempt the big vacation rental platforms like Airbnb to make acquisitions in the space — or try to crush Zeus.

Winners will be determined in part by who has the widest and cheapest selection of properties, but also by which makes people most comfortable in a new city. That’s why Taggar is taking a cue from WeWork by trying to arrange more community events for its tenants. Often in need of friends, Zeus could become a favorite by helping people feel part of a neighborhood rather than a faceless inmate in a massive apartment block or hotel. That gives Zeus network effect if it can develop density in top markets.

Taggar says the biggest challenge is that “I feels like I’m running five startups at once. Pricing, supply chain, customer service, B2B. We’ve decided to make everything custom — our own property manager software, our own internal CRM. We think these advantages compound, but I could be wrong and they could be wasted effort.”

The benefits of Zeus‘ success would go beyond the founder’s bank account. “I’ve had friends in New York get great opportuntiies in San Francisco but not take them because of the friction of moving” Taggar says. Routing talent where it belongs could get more things built. And easy housing might make people more apt to live abroad temporarily. Taggar concludes, “I think it’s a great way to build empathy.”

Pi Day wasn’t pleasant for a lot of tech execs

Pi Day is apparently New Job day for tech execs and VCs these days.

Leaving: Lee Fixel

It’s not every day that one of the top VC investors heads out from their shop. TechCrunch’s @cookie aka Connie Loizos has the story:

Lee Fixel, the low-flying head of Tiger Global’s private equity business, is leaving at the end of June, the firm announced today in a letter sent to clients and seen by Reuters . Scott Shleifer and Chase Coleman will continue as co-managers of the portfolios Fixel has overseen, with Shleifer taking over as its head, according to the letter.

Fixel, 39, is reportedly planning to invest his own money and “may start an investment firm in the future,” Tiger Global wrote in the letter.

Tiger Global has become a major force in late-stage investing. As I wrote last fall, it is also part of a small coterie of investment firms which have pushed their portfolio companies to IPO with reasonable speed (the other firm I noted at the time was Benchmark).

One challenge for Tiger has been the rise of the SoftBank Vision Fund, which has driven up valuations for startups and has almost certainly complicated the return profile of many of Tiger’s investments. The two also share a penchant for investing internationally, where Tiger had almost a monopoly position before the Vision Fund burst on the scene.

Another wrinkle worth tracking is the increasing opposition of Indian founders to both Tiger (and specifically Fixel) and SoftBank. As I wrote in the newsletter just a few weeks ago:

There is a clear lack of trust between India’s startup and venture communities, which ultimately threatens the sustainability and growth outlook of the country’s tech sector.

But a solution to the problem is not so cut and dry. Mega growth funds like SoftBank and Tiger Global have given limited control to their Indian portfolio companies and have forced their hands on numerous occasions. Yet Ola’s avoidance of SoftBank has led to lower valuations and more difficult and lengthier fundraising processes.

Leaving: Chris Cox & Chris Daniels

Facebook’s chief product officer is leaving along with Chris Daniels, the VP of WhatsApp. TechCrunch’s Josh Constine summarized the situation:

The changes solidify that Facebook is entering a new era as it chases the trend of feed sharing giving way to private communication. Cox and Daniels may feel they’ve done their part advancing Facebook’s product, and that the company needs renewed energy as it shifts from a relentless growth focus to keeping its users loyal while learning to monetize a new from of social networking.

There has been much ink spilled here about what this all means strategically, but I do think that there are no good times for prominent 13-year and 8-year veterans to leave their positions. Zuckerberg seems ready to begin a whole new era for Facebook, and perhaps neither wanted to make the multi-year commitment that his new vision entails.

That, or Cox unplugged the servers yesterday.

Leaving (America): Jay Jorgensen

A very rare move from the United States to Korea for a senior exec, from TechCrunch’s Catherine Shu:

Coupang, the unicorn that is defining e-commerce in Korea, announced today that it has hired Jay Jorgensen, Walmart’s former global chief ethics and compliance officer, to serve as its general counsel and chief compliance officer. Jorgensen will relocate to Seoul for the position.

Founded in 2010, with a total of $3.4 billion raised from investors, including SoftBank, and a valuation of $9 billion, Coupang currently operates only in Korea, where it is the largest e-commerce player, but has offices in Seoul, Beijing, Los Angeles, Mountain View, Seattle and Shanghai.

Coupang has been the outlier success of the Korean startup ecosystem for the past few years. The company’s founder, Bom Kim, who holds a bachelor’s and an MBA from Harvard, has worked to apply American management models to Coupang, attempting to eschew the insular culture typical of Korea’s technology companies. Clearly, that vision is drawing international talent.

Staying: Zachary Kirkhorn

Tesla is getting some financial help from itself, from TechCrunch’s Kirsten Korosec:

The automaker officially tapped as its next chief financial officer Zachary Kirkhorn, a longtime employee who has been part of the automaker’s finance team for nine years, according to securities filings posted Thursday. The automaker also appointed Vaibhav Taneja, who led the integration of Tesla and SolarCity’s accounting teams, as its chief accounting officer. Taneja, who will report to Kirkhorn, will oversee corporate financial reporting, global accounting functions and personnel.

No telling whether Kirkhorn knows how to blow a whistle though….

No Longer Admitted: Bill McGlashan

Sometimes when you venture to make an investment, it doesn’t always pan out, from Maggie Fitzgerald at CNBC:

TPG’s Bill McGlashan was fired from the private equity firm on Thursday amid the massive college cheating scandal.

McGlashan, 55, has been terminated for cause from his positions with TPG and Rise effective immediately.

“After reviewing the allegations of personal misconduct in the criminal complaint, we believe the behavior described to be inexcusable and antithetical to the values of our entire organization,” said a TPG spokesperson.

McGlashan founded TPG Growth, which has had a litany of successes investing in later-stage startups such as Airbnb.

Leaving (but not by choice): Bird employees

Once high-flying and now somewhat not as high-flying scooter startup Bird announced that it was laying off around 40 employees. From TechCrunch’s Megan Rose Dickey:

“As we establish local service centers and deeper roots in cities where we provide service, we have shifting geographic workforce needs,” a Bird spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We are expanding our employee bases in locations that match our growing operations around the world, while developing an efficient operating structure at our Santa Monica headquarters. The recent events are a reflection of shifting geographical needs and our annual talent review process.”

I hope they flip them the Bird on the way out.

India fintech and the growing proxy war between global tech giants

Photo by anand purohit via Getty Images

Written by Arman Tabatabai

South African media conglomerate and investment giant Naspers is reportedly planning to invest $1 billion in India this year.

According to reports earlier this week, Naspers is looking towards India’s budding fintech market in particular to unload the fresh pile of dough it’s sitting on after recently lowering its stake in Tencent and cashing out on Walmart’s $16 billion acquisition of portfolio company Flipkart last year.

The fintech heavy thesis directionally makes sense in the context of Naspers’ broader strategy. Naspers has openly discussed its attraction to India’s financial services market and the company already has an established footprint in the region as the owner of payments platform PayU.

That said, the amount Naspers is reportedly looking to gift in just one year is astounding. Indian fintech startups saw around $2.6 billion of investment in 2018 according to Pitchbook. Naspers’ investment alone would represent a 40% spike in India’s total fintech venture capital.

Though one billion dollars in one year may seem ambitious, Naspers has proven it’s not afraid to pour billions into India and emerging verticals, having just led a $1 billion round in Indian food delivery startup Swiggy only a few months ago.

More importantly, Naspers’ push shows that the company is seriously doubling down in the escalating competition to become the dominant force in India’s booming fintech ecosystem. As we discussed in our recent conversation with Billionaire Raj author James Crabtree, India’s financial system is ripe for disruption. With secular tailwinds like growing mobile penetration and financial literacy, innovative financial models in India have begun leap-frogging traditional institutions, with Google and Boston Consulting Group even forecasting that the market for digital payments in India would reach $500 billion in size by 2020.

And many have taken notice — the number of fintech investments in India has grown at a 200%-plus compound annual growth rate over the last five years, according to data from Pitchbook, as leading investors and global tech powerhouses all battle to become the layer of financial infrastructure on which the future Indian economy sits.

A recent deep dive in the WSJ highlighted how crowded the ongoing fight for Indian payments dominance has become in the context of Paytm, an Indian startup that received a $1.4 billion investment from venture behemoth SoftBank:

The Indian market is one worth fighting for, with hundreds of millions of Indians getting online and starting to transact for the first time, thanks to plummeting prices for mobile data and smartphones.

Digital payments in India are soaring” and “set to explode,” Credit Suisse said in a February research note. They should rise nearly five times to $1 trillion by 2023, the report said…

…Meanwhile, it isn’t just Google and WhatsApp challenging Paytm . Indian e-commerce titan Flipkart, in which Walmart Inc. bought a controlling stake for $16 billion earlier this year, has a popular payments service called PhonePe. Amazon.com Inc. has its own payments service and two of India’s biggest telecom players, Bharti Airtel Ltd. and Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd., offer digital wallets, as well.”

Next to peers like Alibaba, SoftBank, or Google, Naspers can often seem like the biggest tech company no one has ever heard of. But if its latest swan dive into India can help Naspers strike gold — as it did with its early investment in Tencent — it might just become the company powering the next economies of the world.

Thanks

To every member of Extra Crunch: thank you. You allow us to get off the ad-laden media churn conveyor belt and spend quality time on amazing ideas, people, and companies. If I can ever be of assistance, hit reply, or send an email to [email protected].

This newsletter is written with the assistance of Arman Tabatabai from New York

The meaning of Nginx and F5

F5 Networks took a dive yesterday after the company announced it was acquiring open-source web server NGINX. While media coverage of the deal was largely positive, the public markets appeared much more skeptical, as F5 stock finished the day down nearly 8%.

As most analyses noted, the logic behind the deal is clear. F5’s existing markets have continued to dry up, with just low single digit expansion expected year-over-year. On top of NGINX being one of the most widely used web servers in the world, NGINX gives NetOps-focused F5 an entrée into the DevOps market. As a result, F5 now has to fork over some cash to modernize its offering and find new avenues for growth. Plus, the acquisition provides F5 with exposure to the growing movement towards open source software.

Unfortunately for F5, the company’s stock is heavily owned by institutional holders and the tradeoffs and costs of the transaction hit areas where institutional investors are particularly sensitive.

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First, investors love nothing more than when companies return cash to shareholders, primarily through buybacks or dividends. Unsurprisingly, investors were less than pleased when F5 announced it would be cutting its more than $1 billion share repurchase plan and would instead be using its cash to fund the NGINX deal.

Some investors and analysts were even more turned off by a purchase price they viewed as a bit pricey (with some estimating a mid-to-high 20s transaction multiple on 2018 sales), which meant F5 will have to extract larger financial benefits from the deal to reach attractive levels of return.

Though F5 expects the combined entity to gain market share and identify more than enough synergies to fuel returns in the long run, in the near term, the company announced that the deal would compress operating margins and earnings-per-share, while only modestly improving revenue growth. Diluting earnings-per-share in particular likely had a direct impact on the valuations spat out by investor models, since many at least in part use a multiple of year-ahead earnings to derive price targets.

And while many investor concerns seem largely technical or financial, several analysts expressed broader fears over the level of synergies and revenue growth F5 and NGINX will actually be able to generate. The synergy concerns from the investment community are actually fairly aligned with those expressed by some of the developer community.

Historically, open-source purists have typically viewed the involvement of for-profit entities as a fatal blow to open source platforms, based on the general assumption that financial and shareholder incentives will lead to proprietary licensing or other challenges. As a result, in addition to the normal integration risk seen in any M&A event, analysts expressed concerns over potential impacts to the combined entity’s ability to attract or retain dedicated open source customers or employees.

Fears that F5’s involvement in NGINX will deter investors seem a bit overblown, but the immediate harsh reaction of F5’s stock investors does nothing to quell fears that financial pressure may impact the existing NGINX model.

The divergent responses to F5’s deal seems indicative of a larger trend we’ve focused on, where long-standing tech powerhouses have seen growth stall after focusing on profitable business lines while ignoring emerging alternative models that have become the primary source of growth. Now, incumbents are having to cough over hefty sums just to play catch up and face a tough balancing act of angering investors and investing in their future.

~ Written by Arman Tabatabai

Ingrid Burrington’s Networks of New York

Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

In book news, I finished Networks of New York, which is a slim book on the infrastructure that powers New York City’s internet and surveillance infrastructure. Burrington has made a name for herself covering the politics and challenges of the networking layers of the internet, and this is both a reference and a sort of travel field guide to this technology that looms around us every day but we often overlook.

That all said, it is really slim, with a few details of mergers and acquisitions of telecom companies strewn in between pages of figures depicting manhole covers. As an exemplar of short books, I think it is an experimental contribution, but I can’t recommend the book if you really want to understand how internet plumbing works. A better book (albeit less about the internet) is Kate Ascher’s The Works: Anatomy of a City.

~ Written by Danny Crichton

Thanks

To every member of Extra Crunch: thank you. You allow us to get off the ad-laden media churn conveyor belt and spend quality time on amazing ideas, people, and companies. If I can ever be of assistance, hit reply, or send an email to [email protected].

This newsletter is written with the assistance of Arman Tabatabai from New York

You’re reading the Extra Crunch Daily. Like this newsletter? Subscribe for free to follow all of our discussions and debates.

CXA, a health-focused digital insurance startup, raises $25M

CXA Group, a Singapore-based startup that helps make insurance more accessible and affordable, has raised $25 million for expansion in Asia and later into Europe and North America.

The startup takes a unique route to insurance. Rather than going to consumers directly, it taps corporations to offer their employees health flexible options. That’s to say that instead of rigid plans that force employees to use a certain gym or particular healthcare, a collection over 1,000 programs and options can be tailored to let employees pick what’s relevant or appealing to them. The ultimate goal is to bring value to employees to keep them healthier and lower the overall premiums for their employers.

“Our purpose is to empower personalized choices for better living for employees,” CXA founder and CEO Rosaline Koo told TechCrunch in an interview. “We use data and tech to recommend better choices.”

The company is primarily focused on China, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia where it claims to works with 600 enterprises including Fortune 500 firms. The company has over 200 staff, and it has acquired two traditional insurance brokerages in China to help grow its footprint, gain requisite licenses and its logistics in areas such as health checkups.

We last wrote about CXA in 2017 when it raised a $25 million Series B, and this new Series C round takes it to $58 million from investors to date. Existing backers include B Capital, the BCG-backed fund from Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, EDBI — the investment arm of the Singapore Economic Development Board — and early Go-Jek backer Openspace Ventures, and they are joined by a glut of big-name backers in this round.

Those new investors include a lot of corporates. There’s HSBC, Singtel Innov8 (of Singaporean telco Singtel), Telkom Indonesia MDI Ventures (of Indonesia telco Telkom), Sumitomo Corporation Equity Asia (Japanese trading firm) Muang Thai Fuchsia Ventures (Thailand-based insurance firm), Humanica (Thailand-based HR firm) and PE firm Heritas Venture Fund.

“There are additional insurance companies and strategic partners that we aren’t listing,” said Koo.

Rosaline Koo is founder and CEO of CXA Group

That’s a very deliberate selection of large corporates which is part of a new strategy to widen CXA audience.

The company had initially gone after massive firms — it claims to reach a collective 400,000 employees — but now the goal is to reach SMEs and non-Fortune 500 enterprises. To do that, it is using the reach and connections of larger service companies to reach their customers.

“We believe that banks and telcos can cross-sell insurance and banking services,” said Koo, who grew up in LA and counts benefits broker Mercer on her resume. “With demographic and work life event data, plus health data, we’re able to target the right banking and insurance services.

“We can help move them away from spamming,” she added. “Because we will have the right data to really target the right offering to the right person at the right time. No firm wants an agent sitting in their canteen bothering their staff, now it’s all digital and we’re moving insurance and banking into a new paradigm.”

The ultimate goal is to combat a health problem that Koo believes is only getting worse in the Asia Pacific region.

“Chronic disease comes here 10 years before anywhere else,” she said, citing an Emory research paper which concluded that chronic diseases in Asia are “rising at a rate that exceeds global increases.”

“There’s such a crying need for solutions, but companies can’t force the brokers to lower costs as employees are getting sick… double-digit increases are normal, but we think this approach can help drop them. We want to start changing the cost of healthcare in Asia, where it is an epidemic, using data and personalization at scale in a way to help the community,” Koo added.

Talking to Koo makes it very clear that she is focused on growing CXA’s reach in Asia this year, but further down the line, there are ambitions to expand to other parts of the world. Europe and North America, she said, may come in 2020.