India’s NoBroker raises $50M to help people buy and rent without real estate brokers

An Indian startup that is attempting to improve the way how millions of people in the nation lease or buy an apartment — by not paying any brokerage — just raised a significant amount of capital to further expand its business.

NoBroker said on Wednesday it has raised $50 million in a new financing round. The Series D round for the Bangalore-based real estate property operator was led by Tiger Global Management and included participation from existing investor General Atlantic. The five-year-old startup, which closed its previous financing round in June, has raised $121 million to date. The new round valued NoBroker at about $325 million, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

NoBroker operates in six cities in India: Bengaluru, Chennai, Gurgaon, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Pune. The startup has established itself as one of the largest players in the local real estate business. It operates over 3 million properties on its website and serves about 7 million users. It is adding more than 280,000 new users each month, Amit Kumar, cofounder and CEO of NoBroker, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Real estate brokers in India, as is true in other markets, help people find properties. But they can charge up to 10 months worth of rent (leasing) — or a single-digit percent of the apartment’s worth if someone is buying the property — in urban cities as their commission. NoBroker allows the owner of a property to directly connect with potential tenants to remove brokerage charges from the equation.

The startup makes money in three ways. First, it lets non-paying users get in touch with only nine property owners. Those who wish to contact more property owners are required to pay a fee. Second, property owners can opt to pay NoBroker to have its representatives deal with prospective buyers — in a move that ironically makes the startup serve as a broker.

NoBroker also offers end-to-end services such as rent agreements, home loans, and movers and packers, for which it also charges a fee. The startup says it uses machine learning to speed up the transactions and make it service low-cost.

The startup processes about $14 million in rent each month, Kumar said. This is increasing by 25%-30% each month, he said. NoBroker’s business in Bangalore and Mumbai, two of its largest cities, are already profitable, Kumar said.

The startup will use the fresh capital to expand its business and build more products. It recently launched a community and digital management app to keep a digital log of all the entries — say a Flipkart delivery personnel comes to your house — occurring in a society, and maintain a dialogue with other people in a vicinity. The app also allows users to exchange goods with one another and pay their utility bills, startup’s executives said.

The new financing round is oddly smaller than $51 million NoBroker had raised in June this year. Saurabh Garg, chief business officer of NoBroker, told TechCrunch in an interview that the founding team did not want to dilute their stake in the startup, hence they opted for a smaller round.

NoBroker is competing with a number of players including Proptiger, 99Acres, and heavily backed NestAway, which counts Goldman Sachs and Tiger Global among its investors. NestAway operates in eight Indian cities and has raised north of $100 million to date. Budget hotel startup Oyo, which has already become one of the largest hotel businesses in the world, also operates in NoBroker’s territory with Oyo Living.

But NoBroker’s Kumar said he does not see Oyo and other startups as competition. Instead, “these other players are some of our largest clients,” he said. India’s real estate industry is estimated to grow to $1 trillion in worth by 2030.

The business model of NoBroker has also created new local challenges for the startup. Brokers are unsurprisingly not happy with startups such as NoBroker and have grown hostile in recent years. In recent years, they have attacked and harassed NoBroker employees. So much so that the startup had to delist its address from Google Maps. But Kumar said the mindset of people is changing.

SoftBank mints QuintoAndar a new unicorn in Latin American real estate tech

QuintoAndar, the Brazilian real estate technology developer, has secured a massive $250 million Series D led by SoftBank, as the Japanese conglomerate continues to deploy its $5 billion commitment to the Latin American region. The round is the latest sign that startups in Latin America can get money if they’re developing technologies in specific areas that are massive painpoints for the geography’s nascent middle class.

QuintoAndar invented a marketplace that lets users search, book, rent and advertise rental properties in Brazil. The site manages listings and visits, transaction processing between tenants and landlords, and houses the digital contracts that bind these agreements together. QuintoAndar also developed a credit analysis system that negates the need for co-signers, deposits and rental insurance – barriers that have historically blocked deal flow in this industry.

Co-founder and CEO Gabriel Braga says QuintoAndar has now entered unicorn territory thanks to the SoftBank-led round. Dragoneer also participated, as well as return investors General Atlantic and Kaszek (which recently announced a fresh $600 million fund of its own). 

QuintoAndar, which literally translates from Portuguese to English as “fifth floor,” is an example of a Brazilian startup solving Brazilian problems. Those seeking long-term rentals in big cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are throttled by bureaucratic policies that enforce expensive deposits, co-signer requirements and skyscraper-high insurance fees. On the supply side, amateur landlords are tunnel visioned on making money from transactions, creating a terrible customer service experience for tenants, along with wasted hours of apartment hunting. QuintoAndar is billing itself as a modernized fix that lets users search, book, rent and advertise rental properties in Brazil. 

The startup, which has grown into a 1,000 person São Paulo-based operation has now amassed a total of $345 million to date, including a $64 million Series C led by General Atlantic that closed just nine months ago. Braga declined to confirm the exact valuation of QuintoAndar, but says that it has crossed the threshold of billion dollar status. The company was founded in 2013. 

Why is this long term rentals startup accumulating so much capital? Brazilians are seeing home ownership as less of a long-term goal and are opting to rent, meaning more money in the bank and freedom to relocate. This, the founder believes, creates a big opportunity to make renting more efficient in a country where 62% of Brazilians are aged 29 or under, according to this review. Brazil’s population of 211,000,000 people has proven a hungry enough market for a startup like QuintoAndar to turn profitable, and to attract foreign investors like SoftBank. Co-founders André Penha and Braga were able to leverage these massive foreign investment checks to create a specific product to help generate liquidity for users in its home market. 

Braga says the company doesn’t measure success by volume of users or its newly minted unicorn status, but by number of property visits carried out on QuintoAndar. The company is projecting over 2 million visits scheduled through its platform in 2019, and is seeing 4,500 contracts signed per month. The CEO attributes QuintoAndar’s popularity to its ease of use, and the fact that the renting service is generating liquidity for brokers and sellers in the Brazilian long term rentals market. 

With the new funding, Braga intends to strengthen QuintoAndar’s userbase by acquiring new customers in more cities across Brazil. The company also intends to attract new talent and build out broker partnerships. In the long term, QuintoAndar envisions launching more financial products for its customers, and eventually using its suite of data to make recommendations for services like home renovations. 

QuintoAndar now joins Nubank, Loggi, Gympass and Stone in the growing club of billion dollar Brazilian tech companies, but its founder is more interested in keeping the momentum going than celebrating entrance into the Latin American unicorn club. “I’m more focused on the long term mission that we have, and not overly excited about being a unicorn. Tomorrow’s another day, we have to keep working,” says Braga. 

PathAI raises $60 million for its computer vision-based pathogen detection technology

With a clinical version of PathAI‘s computer vision-based pathogen detection service still at least one year from coming to market, the diagnostic technology developer has snagged $60 million in its latest round of financing.

The company’s tech is used by doctors to analyze cell samples taken from patients to determine the presence or absence of bacterium, viruses, cancerous cells or other disease causing agents.

These days, PathAI’s technology is used less in hospitals for patient care and more by pharmaceutical companies developing new drugs,  according to the company’s co-founder and chief executive, Dr. Andy Beck.

Our biggest focus today is a research platform we use it to examine new therapeutics for serious diseases,” Beck says. “We see that as a really important problem for patients… accelerating how we get safe and effective medicines to patients.”

That’s an attractive market given that pharmaceutical companies have more money to spend on new technology than hospitals.

When the company does work with pathologists, they’re using the technology for research purposes, says Beck. Any clinical diagnostic work would have to go through trials and be approved by regulators, he says.

“For this direct clinical use it’s in the one to two year timeframe,” he says. 

General Atlantic led the company’s latest round with additional capital coming from previous investors General Catalyst, 8VC, DHVC, REfactor Capital, KdT Ventures, and Pillar Companies.

PathAI has grown its staff to over 60 employees in the past year, and the company has signed partnerships with Bristol-Myers Squibb and Novartis .

As a result of the financing, General Atlantic managing director, Dr. Michelle Dipp will take a seat on the company’s board.

“PathAI’s work could radically improve the accuracy and reproducibility of disease diagnosis and support the development of new medicines to treat those diseases,” said David Fialkow, Managing Director at General Catalyst, in a statement. 

 

Slack reportedly chooses the New York Stock Exchange for its direct listing

The ubiquitous corporate messaging service Slack is following in the footsteps of Spotify’s subscription music service and heading to the New York Stock Exchange for trading through a direct listing, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Slack, which reportedly had somewhere near $900 million on hand last October when it was prepping for its initial public offering, is likely choosing the direct listing route for some of the same reasons that Spotify had when it went public.

Here are the reasons we listed for Spotify’s decision last year around this time:

List Without Selling Shares– Spotify has plent of money with $1.3 billion in cash and securities, has no debt since it converted that into equity for investors, and has positive free cash flow

Liquidity – Investors and employees can sell on public market and sell at time of their choosing without investors shorting a lockup expiration, while new investors can join in

Equal Access– Bankers won’t get preferred access. Instead, the whole world will get access at the same time. “No underwriting syndicate, no limited float, no IPO allocations, no preferential treatment”.

Transparency – Spotify wants to show the facts about its business to everyone via today’s presentation, rather than giving more info to bankers in closed door meetings

Market-Driven Price Discovery – Rather than setting a specific price with bankers, Spotify will let the public decide what it’s worth. “We think the wisdom of crowds trumps expert intervention”.

Slack doesn’t need the money that could come from a public offering, but its longtime employees would like to see some liquidity, and so would its longtime investors.

Choosing the New York Stock Exchange likely gives the company some comfort, because unlike the Nasdaq, the NYSE has designated market makers on the floor of the exchange who can manage prices if the stock becomes really volatile in its first day of trading, according to the WSJ.

This year will be a banner year for public offerings in the U.S. and the NYSE and rival Nasdaq exchange are competing to see who can claim the most tech public offerings for the year.

Nasdaq struck an early blow with the Lyft public offering last week. But NYSE has claimed, Pinterest, Uber, and Slack which could be the biggest public offerings of the year.

Whatever the result, the public offering will be good news for investment firms like Accel, Andreessen Horowitz, Dragoneer Investments, General Atlantic, GV, Kleiner Perkins, Social Capital, Softbank Group, and Thrive Capital, which collectively invested roughly $1.2 billion into the company.

Startups Weekly: A much-needed unicorn IPO update

As I’m sure everyone reading this knows, female-founded businesses receive just over 2 percent of venture capital on an annual basis. Most of those checks are written to early-stage startups. It’s extremely difficult for female founders to garner late-stage support, let alone cash $100 million checks.

Maybe that’s finally changing. This week, not one but two female-founded and led companies, Glossier and Rent The Runway, raised nine-figure rounds and cemented their status as unicorn companies. According to PitchBook data from 2018, there are only about 15 unicorn startups with female founders. Though I’m sure that number has increased in the last year, you get the point: There are hundreds of privately held billion-dollar companies and shockingly few of those have women founders (even fewer have female CEOs)…

Moving on…

YC Demo Days

I spent a good part of the week at San Francisco’s Pier 48 in a room full of vest-wearing investors. We listened to some 200 YC companies make their 120-second pitch and though it was a bit of a whirlwind, there were definitely some standouts. ICYMI: We wrote about each and every company that pitched on day 1 and day 2. If you’re looking for the inside scoop on the companies that forwent demo day and raised rounds, or were acquired, before hitting the stage, we’ve got that too.

IPO corner

Lyft: This week, Lyft set the terms for its highly-anticipated initial public offering, expected to be completed next week. The company will charge between $62 and $68 per share, raising more than $2 billion at a valuation of ~$23 billion. We previously reported its initial market cap would be around $18.5 billion, but that was before we knew that Lyft’s IPO was already oversubscribed. Here’s a little more background on the Lyft IPO for those interested.

Uber: The global ride-hailing business flew a little more under the radar this week than last week, but still managed to grab a few headlines. The company has decided to sell its stock on the New York Stock Exchange, which is the least surprising IPO development of 2019, considering its key U.S. competitor, Lyft, has been working with the Nasdaq on its IPO. Uber is expected to unveil its S-1 in April.

Ben Silbermann, co-founder and CEO of Pinterest, at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017.

Pinterest: Pinterest, the nearly decade-old visual search engine, unveiled its S-1 on Friday, one of the final steps ahead of its NYSE IPO, expected in April. The $12.3 billion company, which will trade under the ticker symbol “PINS,” posted revenue of $755.9 million in the year ending December 31, 2018, up from $472.8 million in 2017. It has roughly doubled its monthly active user count since early 2016, hitting 265 million last year. The company’s net loss, meanwhile, shrank to $62.9 million in 2018 from $130 million in 2017.

Zoom: Not necessarily the buzziest of companies, but its S-1 filing, published Friday, stands out for one important reason: Zoom is profitable! I know, what insanity! Anyway, the startup is going public on the Nasdaq as soon as next month after raising about $150 million in venture capital funding. The full deets are here.

Seed money

General Catalyst, a well-known venture capital firm, is diving more seriously into the business of funding seed-stage business. The firm, which has investments in Warby Parker, Oscar and Stripe, announced earlier this week its plan to invest at least $25 million each year in nascent teams.

Deal of the week

Earlier this week, Opendoor, the SoftBank -backed real estate startup, filed paperwork to raise even more money. According to TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden, the business is planning to raise up to $200 million at a valuation of roughly $3.7 billion. It’s possible this is a Series E extension; after all, the company raised its $400 million Series E only six months ago. Backers of OpenDoor include the usual suspects: Andreessen Horowitz, Coatue, General Atlantic, GV, Initialized Capital, Khosla Ventures, NEA and Norwest Venture Partners.

Startup capital

Backstage Capital founder and managing partner Arlan Hamilton, center.

Debate

Axios’ Dan Primack and Kia Kokalitcheva published a report this week revealing Backstage Capital hadn’t raised its debut fund in total. Backstage founder Arlan Hamilton was quick to point out that she had been honest about the challenges of fundraising during various speaking engagements, and even on the Gimlet “Startup” podcast, which featured her in its latest season. A Twitter debate ensued and later, Hamilton announced she was stepping down as CEO of Backstage Studio, the operations arm of the venture fund, to focus on raising capital and amplifying founders. TechCrunch’s Megan Rose Dickey has the full story.

Pro rata rights

This week, TechCrunch’s Connie Loizos revisited a long-held debate: Pro rata rights, or the right of an earlier investor in a company to maintain the percentage that he or she (or their venture firm) owns as that company matures and takes on more funding. Here’s why pro rata rights matter (at least, to VCs).

#Equitypod

If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Crunchbase News editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm and I chat about Glossier, Rent The Runway and YC Demo Days. Then, in a special Equity Shot, we unpack the numbers behind the Pinterest and Zoom IPO filings.

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Startups Weekly: What’s up with YC? Plus, mobility layoffs and Airbnb’s grand plans

Where to begin… Netflix darling Marie Kondo is hitting up Sand Hill Road in search of $40 million to fund an ecommerce platform, Y Combinator is giving $150,000 to a startup building a $380,000 flying motorcycle (because why not) and Jibo, the social robot, is calling it quits, speaking to owners directly of its imminent shutdown.

It was a hectic week in unicorn land so, I’m just going to get right to the good stuff.

Changes at Y Combinator

Where to begin! Not only did the prolific accelerator announce long-time president Sam Altman would be making an exit, but TechCrunch scooped the firm’s decision to move its headquarters to San Francisco. Y Combinator is going through a number of changes, outlined here. Interestingly, sources tell TechCrunch that YC has no succession plans. We’re guessing that’s because Altman had already mostly transitioned away from the firm, with CEO Michael Seibel assuming his responsibilities. The question is, is Altman planning to launch a startup? Hmmmmm.

Airbnb’s a hotelier

As it gears up for an IPO, Airbnb is showing its mature side. In a bid to accelerate growth, the home-sharing unicorn is buying HotelTonight in a deal said to be valued at around $465 million. Accel, the storied venture capital firm, was the business’s first-ever investors and is now its largest stakeholder. Oughta be a nice return. We’re still wondering whether it’s a cash deal, a cash and stock deal or an all-stock deal. Let me know if you’ve got the deets.

Mobility cuts

Lyft is preparing for its imminent IPO by getting lean. The ride-hailing company is trimming 50 staff members in its scooters and bikes unit, reports TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden. The cuts are mostly impacting those who joined the company when it acquired the electric bike-sharing startup Motivate, a deal that closed about three months ago. I’ll point out that Lyft employs 5,000 people; these layoffs are about one percent of their total workforce. And while we’re on the topic of mobility layoffs, Mobike, the former Chinese bike-share unicorn, is closing down all international operations and putting its sole focus on China.

Munchery goes bankrupt

Several weeks after a sudden shutdown left customers and vendors in the lurch, meal-kit service Munchery has filed for bankruptcy. In the Chapter 11 filing, Munchery chief executive officer James Beriker cites increased competition, over-funding, aggressive expansion efforts and Blue Apron’s failed IPO as reasons for its demise. Here’s the story, complete with Munchery’s bankruptcy filing.

Funders fundraise

This week Precursor Ventures closed its sophomore pre-seed fund on $32 million, NEA filed to raise its largest venture fund yet ($3.6 billion), SoftBank raised $2 billion on a $5 billion target for a Latin America Fund, aMoon raised $660 million for Israeli healthcare deals and Coral Capital brought in $45 million to make early-stage investments in Japan.

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

Startup cash

Sea is raising up to $1.5B
Grab confirms $1.46B investment from SoftBank’s Vision Fund
Music services company Kobalt is raising roughly $100M
Eargo raises $52M for virtually invisible, rechargeable hearing aids
Matterport raises $48M to ramp up its 3D imaging platform
Netflix star and tidying expert Marie Kondo is looking to raise $40M
Blueground raises $20M for flexible apartment rentals

Netflix star and tidying expert Marie Kondo

A16z gets even bigger

Andreessen Horowitz tapped David George as its newest general partner and its first top dealmaker focused on late-stage deals. George joins from General Atlantic, where he’d backed consumer internet, enterprise software and fintech startups as a principal since 2012. The firm’s swelling team is amongst the largest of any VC firm. Most partnerships consist of one to three top dealmakers and a few partners or principals. A16z breaks the mold with its ever-expanding team of GPs. We talked to George and a16z managing director Scott Kupor.

Worth reading

The Khashoggi murder isn’t stopping SoftBank’s Vision Fund, by TechCrunch’s Jon Russell and Jonathan Shieber.

SXSW

Stopping by SXSW? Meet TechCrunch’s writers at our annual Crunch By Crunch Fest party in Austin, Texas. RSVP here to join us on Sunday, March 10th from 1pm to 4pm at the Swan Dive at 615 Red River St. @ E. 7th St., just 3 blocks from the convention center. Hang out with TechCrunchers and fellow readers, enjoy free drinks and check out a live performance by electro-RnB musician Elderbrook.  And check out the full line-up of TechCrunch panels here. I will be discussing the double standard in sex tech with Lora Haddock, the CEO of Lora DiCarlo, on Thursday, March 14th at 2pm at the Fairmont Congressional A, 101 Red River.

Listen to me talk

This week on Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines, Crunchbase New’s editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm and I discuss Y Combinator’s new HQ, Chime’s big funding round and SoftBank’s new Latin America fund. Listen here.

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Andreessen Horowitz hires its 15th general partner

Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capital fund behind the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Groupon, has tapped David George as its newest general partner and its first top dealmaker focused on late-stage deals. George joins from General Atlantic, where he’d backed consumer internet, enterprise software and fintech startups as a principal since 2012.

“Andreessen has always been a multi-stage investment firm, but really the opportunity here is for [me] to be the first focused late-stage investor there and to work with the early-stage team and complement their experience,” George told TechCrunch.

A16z’s newest general partner David George

At a16z, George will invest across industries, offering up his knowledge of late-stage economics, valuations and underwriting to a16z’s large team of investors. George is the firm’s 15th general partner and at least the fourth high-level addition to the team in the last year, including Katie Huan, who joined in June to lead a16z’s cryptocurrency investment effort. Angela Strange and Connie Chan, additionally, were promoted to GP last summer.

The firm’s swelling team is amongst the largest of any VC firm. Most partnerships consist of one to three top dealmakers and a few partners or principals. A16z breaks the mold with its ever-expanding team of GPs. Managing director Scott Kupor says this is part of the firm’s strategy of attacking every industry head-on.

“This is a market where entrepreneurs have lots of choices and they are making choices on the expertise of the individual partner,” Kupor told TechCrunch. “The purpose of having more GPs is about having the appropriate domain expertise and coverage so we can be in front of the most opportunities out there.”

With that in mind, a16z has no plans to slow down on hiring.

“We want to make sure we have the right coverage of all the domains we are focused on,” Kupor added.

A16z is currently investing out of its fifth flagship venture fund, which closed on $1.5 billion in 2016. The firm has raised two bio funds, deploying capital to early-stage startups at the intersection of computer science and life sciences, as well as a $300 million crypto fund and a cultural leadership fund, which counts Sean “Diddy” Combs, Shonda Rhimes, Jada Pinkett Smith and others as limited partners.

Nyca Partners’ Hans Morris hunts for great fintech investments amid volatility

Hans Morris is a name to know in fintech, and as finance and tech sectors prepare for tougher time next year, he has some incisive thoughts to share about the kinds of companies that will succeed (or not) in a financial downturn. The managing partner of investment firm Nyca Partners, Morris also serves as the chairman of the board of Lending Club and is a director of other start-ups including AvidXchange, Boomtown, Payoneer and SigFig. At Nyca, which is on its third fund, Morris spends much of his time meeting with entrepreneurs focused on payments, credit models, digital advice and financial infrastructure.

But unlike many successful fintech VCs, Morris doesn’t have to read about how Wall Street’s history influenced the trajectory of those sectors. He played an active role in shaping them. His experiences heading Smith Barney’s FIG effort (at 29 years old), overseeing Citigroup’s institutional businesses, serving as president of Visa and advising companies at General Atlantic have also provided him with an unparalleled financial services rolodex. And for those who believe that financial history rhymes, Morris’ opinions are now especially welcome. Fintech may be entering a new, post-financial crisis phase in which the low-hanging fruit has been picked and macro headwinds outweigh tailwinds. In the discussion below, Morris talks candidly about how he’s approaching investing next year and how he’s viewing fintech M&A possibilities. He was also eager to share his thoughts on ethics in financial services (a favorite topic), the prospects for challenger banks, why he’s branched out into real estate tech, the future of blockchain and some of his favorite bank CEOs.

Gregg Schoenberg: Hans, it’s always good to see you, but I’m especially glad to be sitting down with you now, given that the financial world is convulsing at the moment. Before we get into that, though, I want to kick off with something else: Do you buy into the idea of techfin vs. fintech?

Hans Morris: I don’t. My basic organizing principle, which you and I have discussed before, is around declining information costs. As these costs decline, it disrupts the traditional profit pools in financial services. It’s always been like that. What I would say is that in recent times, some tech companies have done a very good job at building a trusted relationship with consumers, and in some cases with businesses. That trusted relationship obviously provides a significant competitive advantage of information. But that advantage lessens later on. There are so many examples we could point to of companies that were ‘it.’ Then, suddenly, they say, ‘Oh no, our tech is expensive, creates a bad experience and will cost a lot to fix.’

GS: Let’s talk about the present. As you know, the Fed has been tightening, equities are hemorrhaging, the yield curve is getting spooky and talk of a recession is intensifying. To me, Lending Club, right or wrong, was one of the original poster children of the post-crisis fintech boom. But now, I think we’re in a regime change and that the next crop of successful financial innovators will look a lot different. What’s in store for an area like credit delivery?

HM: In credit delivery, I think it’s now pretty well-realized by investors, and certainly realized by capital markets investors, that credit delivery requires capital. So today, I feel that anyone who’s going to be successful in credit intermediation needs to have a very good understanding of balance sheet risk, liquidity risk, and capital requirements. I pay a lot of attention to capital requirements, and the ability to fund something in the teeth of a crisis.

GS: Let’s say we enter a recession next year and see continued volatility across the capital markets. I understand that each recession and bear market is different, but with the fresh capital you’ve closed on, where are you looking to go on offense?

HM: Among the thousands of fintech companies that have gotten some funding, there are companies that are really struggling to get their Series B or Series C done.

GS: Names that have lost their momentum?

HM: Yes. They’ve lost their momentum, and they’ve lost the perception of momentum among venture investors. But in some cases, these companies still possess some very good fundamentals, yet the valuations are a lot more attractive. If that dynamic becomes even more extreme, I think there could be some good opportunities.

GS: Isn’t it also true that the fintech names that suck up a lot of the venture money aren’t always the best underlying businesses?

So when you talk about high-valuation companies, I think it’s unrealistic for banks to be acquirers.

HM: It’s an interesting dynamic. Generally, as long as companies can continue to raise capital, they will keep going even if that isn’t necessarily a rational thing to do. But in some cases, where you see a bunch of companies pursuing a similar strategy, it would be better to pursue a merger because we don’t need tons of companies doing personal financial management, etc…

GS: Do you see the big banks with strong balance sheets, the JP Morgans of the world, getting the green light from regulators to be more aggressive in M&A?

HM: Regulators have clearly been one reason there hasn’t been more activity. The second thing is goodwill. Keep in mind that for a bank, goodwill is a 100% reduction to tangible Tier One capital. So even for JP Morgan to say, ‘We’ll take a billion dollars of our Tier One capital and invest it in a company with no income and maybe positive EBITDA, but maybe not

GS: That would take a ton of capital or a ton of conviction.

HM: Well, that company would have to be a very powerful growth engine or solution. So when you talk about high-valuation companies, I think it’s unrealistic for banks to be acquirers. Where banks can be acquirers, and this is what we’ve seen, is where you have a company valued at $60 million, maybe a $100 million, etc…

GS: A Clarity Money.

HM: Yes, a company where the acquisition moves a bank much further along in a development cycle. Where the the bank can say, “Instead of us taking two years to get our real product out, we can get out a state-of-the-art product right now, and it comes with a great team and DNA. That’s appealing.

GS: Appealing, but realistic?

HM: It’s hard to pull off. Often, the team leaves, everything dissipates, and the acquirer ends up writing off the whole thing.

GS: Moving forward, who do you think is poised to make M&A work?

HM: There’s a couple of examples where it’s worked. One is PayPal, which in recent times has done an excellent job of acquiring things and integrating talent into the company. I’m quite impressed in terms of how Bill Ready, who is now COO, Dan Shulman and the management team have changed the tech profile of PayPal.

GS: Well, they’re not a 200-year-old financial institution founded on a winding alley in downtown New York.

HM: Yes, but it was very old-school Silicon Valley, and they had a lot of technical debt. Of course, they had this great mafia 20 years ago, but all those people are gone. I don’t think there’s a single person in the top 100 at PayPal that was there 15 years ago.

GS: Let’s talk specific themes. You’ve already mentioned personal financial management, which I share your skepticism about. What’s your take on the prospects for challenger banks?

HM: I think we’re likely to have a war for deposits with too many different types of firms competing for deposits. Just look at the United States last year. All of the deposit growth we saw was explained by Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and JP Morgan Chase. Everyone else shrank. But if you have Monzo and Revolut come to the US and you look at Acorns, MoneyLion, Chime and fifteen other prepaid models or fully chartered bank models, they’re all going to have a pretty slick interface, and they’re all going to be out there competing for deposits.  

GS: How about the robos and free trading platforms?  As you know, a lot of the younger customers on these platforms haven’t experienced a sustained period of tumultuous equity market conditions.  

I pay a lot of attention to capital requirements, and the ability to fund something in the teeth of a crisis.

HM: I think a great majority of American households should be using a roboadvisor. However, the question is around the relationship between the customer acquisition and the revenue opportunity. In fact, a big part of our thesis with SigFig was to really help drive the pivot over to enterprise-based customers. But generally, and without knowing the details, my sense is that Betterment, Wealthfront and maybe Personal Capital have enough brand to get to the scale necessary to be self-sufficient. I think most of the others are not in that position.

GS: Turning to the mortgage and broader real estate sector, is your view that even if we have a deepening downdraft in housing, the real estate start-ups backed by you and others can do well anyway? Because they are essentially taking an industry stuck in the 1980s and ’90s and dragging it into the modern era.

HM: There’s a lot of room for tech improvement in real estate, and that includes residential real estate as well as institutional real estate. The problem with real estate, and mortgage-related models, is that the capital needs are also significant. So if you end up owning property, the bill adds up very quickly.

GS: I guess it depends on where a company buys them.

HM: True. Look, we remain bullish on them, but I share your concern that if activity stops or if you start having real decreases in property values in certain sectors, some of these companies may end up holding the bag.  

GS: When I saw the Ribbon deal, I was wondering how you and other backers looked at the opportunity at this point in the cycle.

HM: Well, for one thing, you can estimate the likelihood of someone getting a mortgage pretty efficiently. You can be right 99 percent of the time, but even if you’re only right 90 percent of the time, you’re going to be fine. That’s because the certainty that the company offers to the customer is worth it. They also have a great management team and a CEO who is really smart. They’re not naive.

GS: So given all the hype and ups and downs we’ve seen in blockchain, I’m wondering if you remain a long-term blockchain guy.

HM: Here’s the simple fact: The whole financial services industry is composed of ledgers. The reconciliation between entities of that information is a significant expense, particularly in the capital markets businesses. But I don’t buy into the view that it’s going to work better in all cases. The evidence so far is that it works well in some cases.

GS: Where can it work well?

HM: Distributed ledgers can work well when having synchronous data is an essential attribute, and when speed is not necessarily a central attribute.

GS: So, even if the implementation takes longer than the the hype machine suggested it would, financial institutions will get there?

Because money attracts crooks.

HM: They will get there. The cost of change is very, very high. The benefit of it is real. The question is, ‘How’s that cost of change compare to the ongoing benefit?’ In enterprise applications, the ones that will succeed are not ones where you say, ‘Lets rebuild everything within the core functions,’ because the cost and complexity are too great. The much better way is to start at the edge of an enterprise delivering immediate value, and then become an architecture for more things to move over to that.

GS: It’s easier said than done…

HM: If you take the capital markets area, I think it often requires an individual who has a bigger-than-life personality and the leadership skills to match it.

GS: Speaking of leadership, let’s talk about that within the context of fintech, where, as you know, we’ve seen mixed outcomes. You and I have talked a fair bit about how fintech isn’t like other tech sectors, because you’re dealing with money and livelihoods.

HM: Yes, and the activities are regulated, for a very good reason.

GS: When you look at a deal, does the character of the leader trump everything else?

HM: I’d say that the character and capabilities of a leader make a big difference. And to me, in financial services, the errors made, whether it’s 10 years ago or today, are similar. I mean, you have to tell the truth. You have to.

GS: Why is it so important to you?

HM: Because money attracts crooks.

GS: On that note, when I look at some of those who subscribe to the whole blitzscaling ethos, I see it as incompatible with our current climate and especially problematic to financial services. Blitzscaling doesn’t endorse breaking the law, of course, but this whole idea of consciously letting fires burn is a recipe for disaster in today’s financial services sector, right?

HM: Yes, I think so. I’d add that we have a rule in our firm: Don’t invest in any business model where you’re tricking the customer into a profitable relationship. But unfortunately, I feel that there are many business models that do just that.

GS: That’s a bold rule given that terms of services agreements remain dark dens of iniquity.

HM: Well, it’s more than just that. Look at Robinhood. I think it’s a remarkable company made up of unbelievable entrepreneurs. But I do feel that if you say, ‘Payment for order flow is the business model,’ or ‘Margin lending is the business model,’ you’ve got to spell that out. I mean, ‘payment for order flow?’ Most people would be like, ‘What does that mean?’

GS: You might as well be speaking in Ancient Greek.

A VC once said to me that we have too much knowledge about some things. I think there’s some truth to that.

HM: Exactly. I feel, in financial services, the best companies, the most successful long-run stories, will do the right thing for their customers, always. That also means not making a high-profile release of a new product, like a high-interest checking and savings account yielding way above anyone else, before you’ve actually checked with the regulators.

GS: On that latter reference, how accountable is Robinhood’s board for the company’s recent blunder?

HM: I honestly don’t know in what way the board was involved in this, but I think it’s a good example of where a board should put the brakes on an idea until the risks are clear. Sometimes management teams, and investors, don’t want to hear that, but it’s an essential role for financial services companies.

GS: In your career, you have seen your fair share of financial icons rise and fall. Have you ever passed on a deal that wound up being a huge success because something didn’t smell right?

HM: Yes, we have passed on things that turned out to be really good investments, but that’s part of our equation.

GS: In 1997, Howard Marks

HM: He’s fantastic, isn’t he?

GS: He’s phenomenal. In one of his famous memos, he asked ‘Are you an investor? Or are you a speculator?’ Given that there are quite a few VCs who have come to fintech in recent years, I’m wondering if you see a lot of speculators.

HM: Most of the folks that I interact with are investors, not speculators. The crypto stuff is pure speculation by almost everybody.

GS: Yes. I wasn’t implying that we discuss crypto.

HM: To the core of your question, I’ll tell you this: There’s this very, very successful VC investor I had a debate with over a deal. My point was that the company in question would need to raise a lot of capital to scale. But that long-term consideration wasn’t especially relevant to him, because he felt the company would have options down the road. We passed on the deal, but now, I look back and regret that decision.

GS: Are you suggesting that you could benefit from having a little more of a speculative instinct?

HM: A VC once said to me that we have too much knowledge about some things. I think there’s some truth to that.

GS: I’m sure that your institutional knowledge has been an important asset on many other occasions. I’ll move on to our last topic, Hans, because I know you have a fund to manage. You know all of the big bank CEOs, right?

HM: Yes.

GS: There’s Jamie Dimon, who defies easy description. At Goldman, you’ve got a banker as CEO. At Morgan Stanley, you’ve got an ex-management consultant. At Citibank, you’ve got

HM: You’ve got Corbat. Michael is just an excellent manager who gets things fixed. It’s interesting: Jamie is a fantastic manager of people too, but Jamie brings in his team. Corbat is very good at taking on an existing team and just making them better. Brian [Moynihan] is also really good. I mean he was a lawyer, and when he got the job, I had no idea what he was like. But I’ve noticed that the people who have worked for him are really loyal.

GS: I think the CEOs of the big banks tend to be a reflection of the times in which they operate, right? We went through the period of the trader CEO, which is now gone. As you look down the road, what are the heads of the big banks going to look like?

HM: I’ll answer that question by turning you to Microsoft. What explains the turnaround there? Is it because Satya [Nadella] is such an amazing engineer? No; he’s a great people person. He’s a fantastic manager who put in place a high-quality decision process, which is key to managing a complex organization.

GS: Implicit in my question is whether or not these organizations are going to be as big and complex as they are now. Specifically, I’m referring to the supermarket model that you were involved in helping to construct. Does that remain in place?

HM: Keep in mind that liquidity is a very, very important aspect of a financial marketplace, and having access to core liquidity that doesn’t change frequently is very important. The professional money obviously switches very quickly. But things like core deposits, pension flows and corporate cash tend to have the longest time-frames to build access to. But when a bank has access to deposits that don’t move much, it enables it to fund the liquid financial assets. That’s so important for when you hit a liquidity crisis.  

GS: So the big bank model is here to stay?

HM: Yes, I think it’s going to be around for a long time.

GS: Well on that note, Hans, I wish you luck in navigating whatever the future brings. Thanks for sitting down with me and sharing your wisdom.

HM: It’s always a pleasure speaking to you, Gregg. Thank you as well.

This interview has been edited for content, length and clarity.

TikTok parent ByteDance sues Chinese news site that exposed fake news problem

There’s worrying news from China’s online media world as ByteDance, the $75 billion company behind popular video app TikTok is taking a news site to court for alleged defamation after it published a story about ByteDance’s fake news problem in India.

U.S. tech firms have come to rely on media to help uncover issues, but Chinese tech news site Huxiu has become the latest litigation target of ByteDance, which reportedly surpassed Uber’s valuation after raising $3 billion. The company has sued internet giants Tencent and Baidu in the past year for alleged anti-competitive behavior.

This time around, ByteDance — which is backed by SoftBank’s Vision Fund, KKR and General Atlantic among others — has taken issue with an op-ed published earlier this month that spotlights a fake news problem on its Indian language news app, Helo.

Launched in July as part of ByteDance’s push in India, Helo competes with local media startups such as Xiaomi-backed ShareChat and DailyHunt as well as Facebook. ByteDance operates news app Jinri Toutiao with over 250 million monthly active users in China, according to data services provider QuestMobile. TikTok, branded as Douyin in China, has a reach well beyond its home front and claims 500 million MAUs worldwide with an additional 100 million users gleaned from its Musical.ly buyout.

“An insult and abuse”

On December 4, Huxiu published an opinion piece that condemned Helo and ShareChat for allowing misinformation to spread. One Helo post, for instance, falsely claimed that a Congress leader had suggested that India should help neighboring rival Pakistan clear its debt rather than invest in the State of Unity, a pricey local infrastructure project.

In response, ByteDane filed a lawsuit against Huxiu, saying that the Chinese news site made defamatory statements against it in translating an op-ed by contributor Elliott Zaagman. Tech blog TechNode — TechCrunch’s partner in China — ran an edited English version of the story but it is not part of the suit.

Zhang Yiming, founder of ByteDance, poses for a photograph at the company’s headquarters in Beijing, China. Photographer: Giulia Marchi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“Technode edited the piece and removed some of my words. Huxiu was, and is with most of my articles, true to my original words,” Zaagman wrote on his WeChat timeline.

To adhere only to “facts” as part of its editorial process, TechNode removed “colorful” parts of Zaagman’s article, according to the blog’s editor-in-chief.

What goes missing on TechNode is what incensed ByteDance. Zaagman’s unfiltered statements on Huxiu “constitute an insult and abuse against ByteDance” by “claiming that Chinese companies have influence over the Indian election,” a ByteDance spokesperson told TechCrunch.

“The content on Huxiu is obviously a rumor and libel. It’s malicious slander. Whether it’s Chinese or foreign publications, Chinese or foreign authors, they must respect the truth, laws, and principles of journalism,” the spokesperson added.

The unedited English version is posted on Zaagman’s personal LinkedIn account here. Here is one paragraph that TechNode removed:

Maybe still Zhang is simply a victim of his own success. Few entrepreneurs start a company expecting it to be worth $75 billion. But what he has created may have far broader ramifications. As is demonstrated by Russia’s use of American social networking platforms to interfere in Western elections, misinformation campaigns can be a tool used by adversaries to disrupt a country’s internal politics. At this current moment when China faces greater international tensions, a pushback to their rising influence in Asia, and territorial disputes along their border with India, the last thing that Beijing needs is accusations from an opportunistic Indian politician sounding the alarm about how Beijing-based Chinese companies are spreading misinformation among the impressionable Indian electorate….

And this as well:

Although, on second thought, maybe it makes perfect sense that Zhang Yiming is peddling products that he himself would likely never use. After all, any good drug dealer knows not to get high on their own supply.

In a statement, Huxiu dismissed ByteDance’s accusation for being “wildly untrue” and bringing “major repercussions” for the online publication’s reputation. A spokesperson for Huxiu told TechCrunch that it hasn’t received any summons as the court is still processing the complaint.

In a peculiar twist to the incident, Huxiu actually pulled its Chinese version of Zaagman’s piece days leading to the ByteDance suit. The removal came as a result of “negotiations among multiple parties,” said the Huxiu representative who declined to share more details on the decision. In China, an online article can be subject to censorship for containing material considered illegal or inappropriate by the media platform itself or the government.

The problem of AI

douyin tiktok musically

The logo for ByteDance’s popular video app TikTok (called Douyin in China) at an electronic dance music festival. / Credit: ByteDance

In the U.S., Facebook has responded proactively to issues raised by the media — for example by banning accounts that stoke racial tension in Myanmar — while Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey went so far as to suggest that journalists sniffing out issues on his service is “critical” to the company. Beijing-based ByteDance hasn’t commented on the fake news problem highlighted in Zaagman’s article, but staff from its Indian regional app previously acknowledged the presence of misinformation.

“We work very closely with our local content review and moderation team in harnessing our algorithms to review and take down inappropriate content,” a Helo spokesperson told local newspaper Hindustan Times.

The concerns about Helo are the latest blow for ByteDance, which has marketed itself as an artificial intelligence company delivering what users want to see based on what their online interaction in the past. As has been the case with Western platforms, such as Google-owned YouTube which also uses an algorithm to feed users videos that they favor, the outcome can mean sensational and sometimes illegal content.

Along those lines, ByteDance’s focus on AI at the expense of significant “human-led” editorial oversight has come in for criticism.

In July, the Indonesian government banned TikTok because it contained “pornography, inappropriate content and blasphemy.” At home, Chinese media watchdogs have similarly slammed a number of the company’s other content platforms, and regulators in the country went so far as to shutter its humor app for serving “vulgar” content.

But ByteDance is hardly the only tech company entangled in China’s increased media scrutiny. Heavyweights including Tencent, Baidu, and ByteDance’s archrival Kuaishou have also come under attack at various degrees for hosting content deemed problematic by the authorities over the past year.

Byju’s targets global expansion for its digital education service after raising $540M

India-based educational startup Byju’s was widely reported to have raised a massive $400 million round and now the company is making things official. The ten-year-old company revealed today it has pulled in a total of $540 million from investors to go after international opportunities.

The round is led by Naspers, the investment firm famous for backing Tencent that also includes educational firms Udemy, Codecademy and Brainly among its portfolio. The Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) provided “a significant portion” of the round, according to an announcement which also revealed that the deal included some secondary share sales. A source told TechCrunch that’s from Sequoia India, an early investor which is cashing in a piece of its winnings.

This round takes Byju’s to $775 million from investors to date. Its backers include Tencent, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative — from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife — General Atlantic, IFC, Lightspeed Ventures and Times Internet.

The deal takes the company valuation to nearly $4 billion, a source told TechCrunch. That’s in line with what was reported by India media last week and it represents a major jump on the $800 million valuation that it commanded when it raised money from Tencent in July 2017. It also makes Byju’s India’s fourth highest-valued tech startup behind only Paytm, Ola and OYO.

Founded in 2008 by Byju Raveendran as on offline teaching center, it moved into digital courses as recently as 2015. The company specializes in grades 4-12 educational courses that use a combination of videos and other materials. Besides courses, the service covers exams, free courses and paid-for courses.

Byju’s says that 30 million students have registered for its online educational service Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

It claims to have registered over 30 million students, while more than two million customers have signed up for an annual paid subscription to date. Raveendran told TechCrunch in an interview that there are currently around 1.3 million paying users. He said that the service enjoys a renewal rate of around 80 percent, and that it is adding 1.5-2 million new students per month, some 150,000 of which are part of paying packages.

English learning for kids worldwide

This new money will go towards globalizing the service beyond India with an international English service for children aged 3-8, an entirely new category for the company, set to launch next year.

Raveendran told TechCrunch that the service will target English-speaking markets, as well as other major international countries including India.

“There’s a growing percentage of people wanting to learn English or [in countries where] it is becoming aspirational. Slowly but surely it is happening around the world,” he said in an interview.

The company will release the new services at the beginning of local academic years — which vary worldwide — with the aim of appealing directly to kids. If the youngsters enjoy the app, parents can buy the full experience for them. It’s a logical way to find a global audience — families prepared to spend on English tuition exist worldwide — whilst also expanding into a new customer base that could become users of the core Byju’s service.

While the company has developed the core content aspect of the service, Raveendran said he is on the lookout for acquisitions and partnerships that can add more to the appeal.

“They will all be product-based acquisitions that will be value-adds on top of our core product,” he said. “Over the last 12 months, we’ve scouted for core product acquisitions but went the other way around and decided to build it ourselves.”

Further down the line, Byju’s may develop more localized services in countries where it sees high demand for the children’s product, Raveendran added.

Byju Raveendran started the company ten years ago, but it entered the digital education space in 2015 [Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg/Getty Images]

Global investor base

That expansion is likely to be influenced by Naspers which has a very global portfolio, including deals in emerging markets like Southeast Asia, Latin America, Africa and Eastern Asia. Indeed, the deal sees Russell Dreisenstock — head of international investments for Naspers — join the Byju’s board.

Tencent also has experience and connections, having backed China’s Yuanfudao education platform, which is now reportedly valued around $2.8 billion. Alongside Sequoia — another Byju’s investor — it is also part of VIPKid, a hugely successful platform that connects U.S-based teachers with English language learners in China.

Despite that, Raveendran said those investments are unlikely to be core to this global push.

“We expect [our investors] to help us finding partners through portfolio companies or others [but] there is no significant overlap with what we will do,” he explained.

In the case of VIPKid, he said that if Byju’s “ever decides to do anything in China” then it is likely that it will complement VIPKid’s tutor-led approach to learning rather than take it on directly.

Still, Raveendran expects the global business to become profitable and self-sustaining within the next three years. Already, the India-based business is profitable as of this year, he said, but its appeal has grown globally somewhat even before this new product launch. Overseas is currently 15 percent of revenue, a figure that the CEO puts down to the Indian diaspora globally.