Disney+ Hotstar has about 8 million subscribers

We finally know just about how many subscribers Hotstar has amassed over the years in India. “Approximately 8 million.”

Disney said on Wednesday that its eponymous streaming service now has over 50 million subscribers, nearly 8 million of whom are in India, where it launched its service atop Hotstar less than a week ago.

Five-year-old Hotstar is the most popular on-demand streaming service in India with more than 300 million users. The service and its operator, Indian network Star India, were picked up by Disney as part of its $71 billion deal with Fox last year.

For years, people in the industry have been curious about Hotstar’s premium subscriber base — to no luck. Most estimates have suggested it had about 1.5 million to 2 million subscribers. Executives at rival firms have expected that figure to be lower.

In fact, a months-long analysis conducted by one streaming firm in India concluded recently that there were 2 million paying subscribers for music and video services. So 8 million is a huge milestone.

But ARPU that Disney will clock from these 8 million subscriber is going to be far lower. Disney+ Hotstar is available in India at a yearly subscription cost of about $20. (That’s the revised subscription cost. Prior to Disney+’s launch in India, Hotstar charged about $13.) The service also offers a lower-cost tier that costs less than $5.5 a year.

And for that $20 a year, subscribers of Disney+ Hotstar get access to a wide-ranging catalog that includes access to Disney Originals in English as well as several local languages, live sporting events, dozens of TV channels, and thousands of movies and shows, including some sourced from HBO, Showtime, ABC and Fox that maintain syndication partnerships with the Indian streaming service.

“I think everyone is still trying to sort out the right pricing. It’s true the average Indian consumer is used to far lower prices and can’t afford more. However, we need to focus on the consumers likely to buy this, who have the requisite broadband access and income, etc,” Matthew Ball, former head of strategic planning for Amazon Studios, told TechCrunch in a recent conversation.

Disney+ competes with more than three dozen international and local players in India, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Times Internet’s MX Player (which has over 175 million monthly active users), Zee5, Apple TV+ and Alt Balaji, which has over 27 million subscribers.

Most of these services monetize their viewers through ads, and have kept their monthly subscription price below $3.

Agritech startup DeHaat raises $12M to reach more farmers in India

DeHaat, an online platform that offers full-stack agricultural services to farmers, has raised $12 million as it looks to scale its network across India.

The Series A financial round for the eight-year-old Patna and Gurgaon-based startup was led by Sequoia Capital India. Dutch entrepreneurial development bank FMO, and existing investors Omnivore and AgFunder, also participated in the round. The startup, which began to seek funding from external investors last year, has raised $16 million to date and $3 million in venture debt.

DeHaat (which means village in Hindi) eases the burden on farmers by bringing together brands, institutional financers and buyers on one platform, explained Shashank Kumar, co-founder and chief executive of the startup, in an interview with TechCrunch.

The platform helps farmers secure thousands of agri-input products, including seeds and fertilizers, and receive tailored advisory on the crop they should sow in a season. “We have built a comprehensive database of crop tests to offer advice to farmers,” he said.

DeHaat, which employs 242 people, also helps them connect with 200 institutional partners to provide farmers with working capital, and when the season is over, helps them sell their yields to bulk buyers such as Reliance Fresh, food delivery startup Zomato and business-to-business e-commerce giant Udaan.

DeHaat today operates in 20 regional hubs in the eastern part of India — states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand — and serves more than 210,000 farmers, said Kumar.

Shashank Kumar, Amrendra Singh, Adarsh Srivastav and Shyam Sundar Singh co-founded DeHaat in 2012

The startup has developed a network of hundreds of micro-entrepreneurs in rural areas that distribute agri-input goods to farmers from their regional hubs and then bring back the output to the same hub.

“We have an app in local languages and a helpline desk that farmers, many of whom don’t own a smartphone, use to reach out to us and explain their pain points and needs,” he said.

DeHaat does not charge any fee for its advisory, but takes a cut whenever farmers use its platform to buy agri-inputs or sell their crop yields.

The startup will use the fresh capital to extend its network to 2,000 rural retail centres, on-board more micro-entrepreneurs for last-mile delivery and reach 1 million farmers by June of next year, said Kumar. DeHaat is also working on automating its supply chain and developing more sophisticated data analytics, he said.

At stake is India’s agriculture market that is worth $350 billion and serves nearly 100 million small and independent farmers, said Abhishek Mohan, VP at Sequoia Capital India, the VC fund that writes more checks than anyone else in the country.

“This industry is on the brink of a massive transformation thanks to ease of regulation, farmers getting organized and increasing penetration of smartphones. DeHaat is leveraging these trends to build the next-gen product in agricultural supply chain,” said Mohan in a statement.

“The tipping point that led to Sequoia India’s decision to partner with them was the field visit, where the farmers expressed how proud they were to be associated with a platform they felt truly worked in their favour. This impact and deep brand loyalty stems from the leadership team’s razor-sharp focus, deep empathy and fine execution,” he added.

Disney debuts its streaming service in India for $20 a year

Disney+ has arrived in the land of Bollywood. The company on Friday (local time) rolled out its eponymous streaming service in India through Hotstar, a popular on-demand video streamer it picked up as part of the Fox deal.

To court users in India, the largest open entertainment market in Asia, Disney is charging users 1,499 Indian rupees (about $19.5) for a year, the most affordable plan in any of the more than a dozen markets where Disney+ is currently available.

Subscribers of the revamped streaming service, now called Disney+ Hotstar, will get access to Disney Originals in English as well as several local languages, live sporting events, dozens of TV channels, and thousands of movies and shows, including some sourced from HBO, Showtime, ABC and Fox that maintain syndication partnerships with the Indian streaming service. It also maintains partnership with Hooq — at least for now.

Unlike Disney+’s offering in the U.S. and other markets, in India, the service does not support 4K and streams content at nearly a tenth of their bitrate.

Disney+ Hotstar is also offering a cheaper yearly premium tier, priced at Rs 399 (about $5.3), that will offer subscribers access to movies, shows (but not those sourced from aforementioned U.S. networks and studios) and live sporting events; it won’t include Disney Originals.

Access to streaming of sporting events, especially of cricket matches, has helped five-year-old Hotstar become the most popular on-demand video streaming in India. During the cricket tournament Indian Premier League (IPL) last year, the service amassed more than 300 million monthly active users and more than 100 million daily active users.

It also holds the global record for most simultaneous views on a live stream, about 25 million — more than thrice its nearest competitor.

Prior to today’s launch, Hotstar offered its premium plans at 999 Indian rupees, and 365 Indian rupees. Existing subscribers won’t be affected by the price revision for the duration of their current subscription.

The service, run by Indian conglomerate Star India, offers access to about 80% of its catalog at no cost to users. The company monetizes these viewers through ads.

But in recent years, the company has begun to explore ways to turn its users into subscribers. Two years ago, Hotstar stopped offering cricket match streaming to non-paying users.

People familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that Hotstar has about 1.5 million paying subscribers, lower than what most industry firms estimate. But that figure is still higher than most of its competitors.

And there are many.

India’s on-demand video market

Disney+ will compete with more than three dozen international and local players in India, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Times Internet’s MX Player (which has over 175 million monthly active users), Zee5, Apple TV+ and Alt Balaji, which has amassed over 27 million subscribers.

“The arrival of Disney+ in India is another case study in the globalization of entertainment in the digital era. For decades, the biggest companies in the world have expanded their reach into different markets. But it’s new, and actually quite profound, that everyone on earth receives the very same version of such a specific cultural product,” Matthew Ball, former head of strategic planning for Amazon Studios, told TechCrunch.

As in some other markets, including the U.S., streaming services have inked deals with telecom networks, TV vendors, cable TV operators and satellite TV players to extend their reach in India.

Most of these streaming services monetize their viewers by selling ads, and those who do charge have kept their premium plans below $3.

Why that figure? That’s the number most industry executives think — by spending years in the Indian market — that people in the country are willing to pay for viewing content. The average of how much an individual pays for cable TV, for instance, in India is also about $3.

“I think everyone is still trying to sort out the right pricing. It’s true the average Indian consumer is used to far lower prices and can’t afford more. However, we need to focus on the consumers likely to buy this, who have the requisite broadband access and income, etc,” said Ball.

Commuters drive along a road past a billboard in Mumbai advertising the Amazon Prime Video online series “The Forgotten Army”. (Photo by INDRANIL MUKHERJEE / AFP via Getty Images)

At stake is India’s booming on-demand video streaming market that, according to Boston Consulting Group, is estimated to grow to $5 billion from half a billion two years ago.

Hotstar’s hold on India could make it easier for Disney+, which has launched in more than a dozen markets and has amassed over 28 million subscribers.

As the country spends about two more weeks in lockdown that New Delhi ordered last month to curtail the spread of coronavirus, this could also compel many to give Disney+ a try.

On the flip side, if the lockdown is extended, the current season of IPL, which has been postponed until mid-April, might be further delayed or cancelled altogether. Either of those scenarios could hurt the reach of Hotstar, which sees a massive drop in its user base after the conclusion of each cricket tournament.

Disney initially planned to launch its streaming service in India on March 28, the day IPL was supposed to commence. But the company later postponed the launch by six days.

Industry executives told TechCrunch that if IPL is cancelled, it could severely hurt the financials of Hotstar, which clocks more than 50% of its revenue during the 50-odd days of the cricket season.

Some said Disney+’s premier catalog might not be relevant for most of Hotstar’s user base, who seem to care about this streaming service only during the cricket season or to catch up on Indian soap operas.

Hotstar has also received criticism for censoring more content on its platform than any other streaming service in India. Last month, Hotstar blocked from streaming on its platform an episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” that was critical of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. YouTube made that segment available without any edits.

John Oliver slammed Hotstar for censoring the episode and noted that the streaming service had additionally edited out parts from his older episodes where he made fun of Disney. In 2017, Hotstar also edited out a segment from Oliver’s show in which he mocked Samsung for the Galaxy Note 7 fiasco. Hotstar and Samsung had a commercial partnership.

Hotstar did not respond to multiple requests for comment in 2017. Hotstar did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the recent controversy.

SoftBank terminates $3BN tender offer for WeWork shares

SoftBank Group has pulled a $3 billion tender offer for WeWork shares — citing closing conditions not being met.

The investment behemoth had been rumoured to be getting cold feet, when the WSJ reported last month that it was using regulatory investigations as a way to back out of its commitment to buy $3BN in shares from existing WeWork shareholders.

Under the terms of the share buyback deal negotiated last year, WeWork founder Adam Neumann had been set to receive almost $1BN for his shares in the co-working company. The former CEO had already been forced out at that stage after public markets balked over his managerial acumen, as we reported it at the time.

In a press statement issued today SoftBank SVP and chief legal officer, Rob Townsend, writes:

SoftBank remains fully committed to the success of WeWork and has taken significant steps to strengthen the company since October, including newly committed capital, the development of a new strategic plan for WeWork and the hiring of a new, world-class management team. The tender offer was an offer to buy shares directly from other major stockholders and its termination has no impact on WeWork’s operations or customers. The tender offer closing was conditioned on the satisfaction of certain closing conditions the parties agreed to in October of last year for SoftBank’s protection. Several of those conditions were not met, leaving SoftBank no choice but to terminate the tender offer.

SoftBank lists the unfulfilled conditions that have led it to terminate the offer as:

  • The failure to obtain the necessary antitrust approvals by April 1, 2020;
  • The failure to sign and close the roll up of the China joint venture by April 1, 2020;
  • The failure to close the roll up of the Asia (ex-China and ex-Japan) joint venture by April 1, 2020;
  • The existence of multiple, new, and significant pending criminal and civil investigations that have begun since the MTA was signed in October 2019, in which authorities have requested information regarding, among other things, WeWork’s financing activities, communications with investors, business dealings with Adam Neumann, operations, and financial condition; and
  • The existence of multiple new actions by governments around the world related to COVID-19, imposing restrictions against WeWork and its operations.

A spokeswomen for WeWork declined to comment on SoftBank withdrawing the offer. But Reuters has reported that a special committee of WeWork’s board said it was “disappointed” by the development and is  considering “all of its legal options, including litigation.”

At the time of writing SoftBank had not responded to a request for comment.

Its press note makes a point of emphasizing that “Neumann, his family, and certain large institutional stockholders, such as Benchmark Capital, were the parties who stood to benefit most from the tender offer”.

“Together, Mr. Neumann’s and Benchmark’s equity constitute more than half of the stock tendered in the offering. In contrast, current WeWork employees tendered less than 10 percent of the total,” it writes, adding: “SoftBank previously worked with WeWork to complete an earlier phase of the tender offer that allowed over 4,000 employees to reprice out-of-the-money stock options at lower strike prices, delivering value in excess of $140 million to these employees in the form of reduced exercise prices (where such options would have been worth substantially less or nothing absent such repricing).”

Earlier this week WeWork announced the sale of Meetup, a social networking platform designed to connect people in person, for an undisclosed sum that’s reportedly far less than the $156M acquisition price WeWork paid for it back in 2017.

The novel coronavirus has certainly brought disruption to the hipster white collar co-working and social networking business, as populations are encouraged do to the opposite of mingle. The near term prospects for co-working spaces in a new age of social distancing and encouraged (or enforced) home working look bleak.

Yet, outside Asia, WeWork has to date closed only a tiny minority of its locations globally as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Even in heavily affected cities in Europe, such as Madrid and Milan — where governments have imposed strict quarantine measures to try to stem the tide of COVID-19 deaths — WeWork has not taken the step of shuttering co-working spaces.

Instead, in Europe and the US, it has only been temporarily closing buildings or even just individual floors if infections are identified.

It’s a different story in Asia. Per an updated list of building closures on WeWork’s website, the company closed more than 30 locations across cities in India on March 23 — but only after the government imposed a three-week nationwide lockdown, instructing India’s 1.3BN people to stay at home.

Elsewhere, WeWork members may see little reason to break quarantine in order to travel to a shared workspace when, provided they have Internet at home, they can stay where they are and be just as productive without risking spreading or catching the virus — hence the Zoom videoconferencing boom.

WeWork’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has also caused some rifts with its membership, with press reports of members angry at it for refusing refunds for spaces they can’t (in good conscience) use.

It has also faced criticism from members angry it’s prioritizing rent collection from now very cash-strapped small businesses rather than closing down during a public health crisis. (We’ve heard similar stories from members who did not wish to be publicly identified.)

WeWork, meanwhile, has justified staying open in a pandemic by claiming its locations contain people doing essential work.

When we asked the company about its response to the coronavirus last month, it told us: “We are monitoring the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic closely and have implemented a number of precautionary measures” — saying then it had strengthened “on-site cleanliness measures” and suspended all internal and member events until further notice, as of March 12.

On the same date it had offered its own staff the option of working from home — though its doors remained open to keycard-holding, fee-paying members.

Google to shut down its India-focused Q&A app Neighbourly

Google is shutting down Neighbourly, a Q&A social app that it launched in Mumbai two years ago, the company has informed users.

The app, developed by company’s Next Billion Initiative, aimed to give local communities an outlet to seek answers to practical questions about life, routine and more.

At the time of the app’s launch, Google told TechCrunch that it believed that an increase in urban migration, short-term leasing and busy lives had changed the dynamic of local communities and made it harder to share information quite so easily.

The app supported voice-based entry for questions and a range of local languages.

In an email, Google said Neighbourly helped users find answers to over a million questions, but it did not get the traction the company was hoping for. The app will shut down on May 12, but users have another six months to download their data.

“We launched Neighbourly as a Beta app to connect you with your neighbors and make sharing local information more human and helpful. As a community, you’ve come together to celebrate local festivals, shared crucial information during floods, and answered over a million questions,” the company wrote to users.

“But Neighbourly hasn’t grown as we had hoped. In these difficult times, we believe that we can help more people by focusing on other Google apps that are already serving millions of people everyday,” it added, pointing users to explore Google Maps’ Local Guide, which also allows sharing of knowledge with local communities.

The app had such low-traction that third-party intelligence services such as App Annie and Sensor Tower don’t have any substantial data about it. But on Play Store, Neighbourly is listed to have more than 10 million downloads.

Mobile payments firms in India are now scrambling to make money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Search for a business model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside Udaan’s push to digitize India’s B2B retail market

During a recent visit, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella reiterated his company’s commitment to India and revealed a new fund to help SaaS startups in the country.

And then Nadella and Anant Maheshwari, president of Microsoft India, discussed the success story of B2B platform Udaan in three separate onstage public appearances.

Headquartered in Bangalore, Udaan is a business-to-business e-commerce marketplace founded by former Flipkart executives Amod Malviya, Vaibhav Gupta and Sujeet Kumar. The startup used Microsoft’s free Azure credits to scale in its early days; as in some other markets, Microsoft, Amazon and Google offer free cloud credits in bulk to early, promising Indian startups in a bid to onboard them and see if their solutions could be relevant to other clients down the road.

More often than not, these bets don’t work, but sometimes they pay off. Udaan, valued at about $2.7 billion after raising nearly $900 million from investors like Lightspeed Venture Partners, Tencent Holdings, GGV Capital and Hillhouse Capital, has become one of Microsoft India’s biggest clients in the last three years.

Udaan was founded in 2016 at the tail end of India’s e-commerce frenzy, when scores of startups that had attempted to build business-to-consumer online shopping platforms were conceding defeat.

At the time, very few players — like Power2SME and Moglix (industrial products) and Bizongo (packaging for businesses) — were looking at the business-to-business market in India.

Udaan is valued at about $2.7B after raising nearly $900M from investors like Lightspeed Venture Partners, Tencent Holdings, GGV Capital and Hillhouse Capital and has become one of Microsoft India’s biggest clients.

But despite venturing into a road less traveled, Udaan had ambitious dreams. The startup was building its own logistics network, a herculean task that even Flipkart and Amazon avoided to a certain measure for years, yet it was reaching an audience that had never sold online.

Google, Toyota invest in WhereIsMyTransport to map transport in emerging cities

In emerging markets, up to 80% of the population may have to rely on informally-run public transport to get around. Literally, privately-run buses and cars. But journey-planning apps that work well for commuters in developed markets like New York or London do not work well in emerging markets, which is why you can’t just flip open an app like Citymapper in Lagos, Nigeria. Furthermore, mobility is a fundamental driver of social, political, and economic growth. If you cannot get around, you can’t grow as a country, so it’s pretty important for these emerging economies.

WhereIsMyTransport specialises in mapping these formal and informal public transport networks in emerging markets. They have mapped 34 cities in Africa and are mapping cities in India, Southeast Asia and Latin America. Its integrated mobility API includes proprietary algorithms, features and capabilities designed for complex transit networks in these emerging markets.

It’s now raised a $7.5 million Series A funding round led by Liil Ventures, that also includes returning investors Global Innovation Fund and Goodwell Investments, plus new strategic investment from Google, Nedbank, and Toyota Tsusho Corporation (TTC).

The platform now has more than 750,000 km of routes in 39 cities and the new strategic investment will drive further international expansion.

Devin de Vries, said: “We make the invisible visible, by collecting all kinds of data related to public transport and turning the data into information that can be shared with the people who need it most. In emerging markets, the mobility ecosystem is complex; informal public transport doesn’t behave like formal public transport. Data and technology solutions that work well in London or San Francisco wouldn’t make anything like the same impact, if any at all, in the cities where we work. Our solutions are designed specifically to overcome these contextual challenges.”

Mr. Masato Yamanami, Automotive Division’s CEO of Toyota Tsusho Corporation, also said that “our division’s global network, that covers 146 countries, is primarily focused on new emerging countries where people rely on informal public transport. Through strategic collaboration with WhereIsMyTransport, we will establish better and more efficient mobility services that help to resolve social challenges and contribute to the overall economic development of nations, primarily emerging nations.”

Finally, Alix Peterson Zwane, Chief Executive Officer of Global Innovation Fund, said: “Informal and often unreliable mass transit is a significant problem that disproportionately affects poor people. We are excited to continue to work with WhereIsMyTransport to make mass transportation in emerging cities more accessible and more efficient.”

SeeHow helps cricketers train smarter

Like baseball, cricket relies on grass, dirt, wood, cork, spit, spin, drop and rise en route to either victory or loss. And like baseball — and just about any other sport, really — cricket coaching staffs and their players worldwide are looking for more ways to track every move.

Tracking statistics is nothing new. With each action, a player produces a stat that can be used to track improvement or struggle over a given period of time. But as players get stronger and stakes — financial and otherwise — get higher, a need for more specific data is proving necessary.

India-based SeeHow transforms sports equipment into sensors to do just that, and it does so without having to alter anything on the athlete’s body. Its sensors are baked into cricket balls and bat handles to track very specific types of data that batsmen and bowlers generate. And tracking the behavior of a bowled ball and where and how it lands on a bat all play a role in the story of cricket.

“Putting the sensor inside the ball or bat handle where the action is happening is when you can capture data fundamentally at a higher accuracy,” says Dev Chandan Behera, founder and CEO of SeeHow . “Most MEMS [micro-electro-mechanical systems] can measure up to 2,000 degrees per second, i.e about 300+ RPMs. International spinners like Shane Warne can spin the ball up to 3,000 RPMs. This is something we are able to capture.”

To obtain data, a trainer first assigns a bowler and/or a batsman in the accompanying Android app before a session. (Behera says an iOS app is due this year.) During play, each action is captured in near real time for each corresponding player.

For bowlers, the sensor tracks speed, spin, seam position or orientation, and length — where the ball lands on the pitch. For batsmen, the sensor tracks swing speed and angle, where it hits on the bat, what kind of deliveries they played, what their responses were to a particular delivery and the velocity of the ball off the bat.

This data is then streamed in real time and can be read by players and coaches alike on the app. The app retains a history of a player’s progress in order to make any necessary adjustments and to track improvements.

“In bat on ball sport or racquetball sport, you’re doing something in response to the pitcher or your opponent, and that’s something we’re able to capture into a single system,” Behera says. Because both the data from the batter and the bowler are streaming to a single system, he adds, the app is able to tell users what the reaction time is.

Behera grew up playing cricket with the intention of improving enough to ensure his rise through the ranks.

“Growing up we would use chalk, cones or a sheet of A4 paper as markers during play to assess how we bowled,” Behera says of his early years. “A coach would use a slate to mark the number of balls bowled and selection would be based on whether you had his attention in that particular window when he happened to look at you playing. You might just have a bad day and not get selected to the next level.”

After moving to Singapore, Behera continued competing in the sport, and says he was exposed to more tools and more methodical training approaches.

“We used to record videos through mobile phone cameras and compare them to videos on YouTube or show it to our seniors or coaches for tips,” he says. “However, the process was very ad hoc, and without any data and science to it, it was subjective. We never improved and made it as cricketers.”

His experience building robots, combined with his cricket playing, prompted him to consider using a ball as a way to glean data to help improve cricketers’ performances.

“It occurred to me that we could address this issue by bringing in a new perspective to the ball itself. The experience of building such complex hardware helped me gauge the challenges we needed to build a sports operating system that will enable sensors in the field of play to provide this holistic learning experience in cricket.”

Behera says SeeHow’s sensors are being used at 12 cricket academies in nine countries. First-class cricketer Abhishek Bhat is a fast bowler whose speed topped at 120km. He writes that after two weeks, he was able to push his pace into the mid 130s:

However, it wasn’t until SeeHow came into the picture that I was able to get a consistent measurement of my bowling speed, session after session and day after day. I cannot overstate the impact bowling with the smart ball has had on my bowling speed.

I had my first bowling session with the smart ball in early November and I was bowling in the mid-120s, barely getting above 130kmph. Then with some technical adjustments in a couple of weeks time, I was consistently bowling close to the 130 kmph mark. It was then that I realized that bowling fast is more than just about technique, it’s about the mindset.

SeeHow isn’t the only company trying to improve the way cricketers train.

A company called StanceBeam has developed a system that, among other things, provides session insights, the power generated from a swing, angles and directions of a swing and a 3D analysis of a batsman’s swing. It does so through a hardware extension that players attach to the ends of their bats and that relays data via an app.

Microsoft is also in the game of cricket analysis. The company partnered with star India cricketer Anil Kumble and his company Spektacom to enhance the reach of its sensor, which is designed to help better engage fans and broadcasters through the use of embedded sensors, artificial intelligence, video modeling and augmented reality. The company’s first offering is a smart sticker for bats that contains sensor tech designed to track batting behavior that is readable via an app.

As cricket starts to find an audience beyond the Commonwealth countries and continues to draw big dollars, look for tech to play a bigger role in attracting and maintaining audiences and players.

For SeeHow, cricket is just the beginning.

“Baseball is a very natural extension to cricket if you look at how the sport is played and the equipment,” Behera says. “And we have also done mixed martial arts with sensors in the gloves.”

The company has filed for five patents, one of which, Behera says, is around the construction of the ball, specifically in order to be able to hold the vibrations.

“We have mounted the sensor in the sports equipment at the core and introduced a protective material to cushion the sensor from impact and vibration,” he says. “The patent captures the construction of the ball that mounts the sensor and introduces the protective material in a novel manner to be able to capture the motion data at the core.”

As it scales, SeeHow will look to license the hardware to equipment manufacturers and become a platform company. SeeHow is funded through a friends and family round and is currently in search of seed funding.

Investors in LatAm get bitten by the hotel investment bug as Ayenda raises $8.7 million

Some of Latin America’s leading venture capital investors are now backing hotel chains.

In fact, Ayenda, the largest hotel chain in Colombia, has raised $8.7 million in a new round of funding, according to the company.

Led by Kaszek Ventures, the round will support the continued expansion of Ayenda’s chain of hotels in Colombia and beyond. The hotel operator already has 150 hotels operating under its flag in Colombia and has recently expanded to Peru, according to a statement.

Financing came from Kaszek Ventures, and strategic investors like Irelandia Aviation, Kairos, Altabix, and BWG Ventures.

The company, which was founded in 2018, now has more than 4,500 rooms under its brand in Colombia and has become the biggest hotel chain in the country.

Investments in brick and mortar chains by venture firms are far more common in emerging markets than they are in North America. The investment in Ayenda mirrors big bets that SoftBank Group has made in the Indian hotel chain Oyo and an investment made by Tencent, Sequoia China, Baidu Capital and Goldman Sachs, in LvYue Group late last year amounting to “several hundred million dollars”, according to a company statement.

“We’re seeking to invest in companies that are redefining the big industries and we found Ayenda, a team that is changing the hotel’s industry in an unprecedented way for the region”, said Nicolas Berman, Kaszek Ventures Partner.

Ayenda works with independent hotels through a franchise system to help them increase their occupancy and services. The hotels have to apply to be part of the chain and go through an up to 30-day inspection process before they’re approved to open for business.

“With a broad supply of hotels  with the best cost-benefit relationship, guests can travel more frequently accelerating the economy”, says Declan Ryan, Managing Partner at Irelandia Aviation.

The company hopes to have over 1 million guests in 2020 in their hotels. With rooms listing at $20 per-night including amenities and an around the clock customer support team.

Oyo’s story may be a cautionary tale for companies looking at expanding via venture investment for hotel chains. The once high-flying company has been the subject of some scathing criticism. As we wrote:

The New York Times  published an in-depth report on Oyo, a tech-enabled budget hotel chain and rising star in the Indian tech community. The NYT wrote that Oyo offers unlicensed rooms and has bribed police officials to deter trouble, among other toxic practices.

Whether Oyo, backed by billions from the SoftBank  Vision Fund, will become India’s WeWork is the real cause for concern. India’s startup ecosystem is likely to face a number of barriers as it grows to compete with the likes of Silicon Valley.