Truecaller makes first acquisition to build out payment and financial services in India

Sweden’s Truecaller started out life as a service that screens calls and messages to weed out spammers. In recent times the company has switched its focus to India, its largest market based on users, adding services that include payments to make it more useful. Now Truecaller is putting even more weight behind its India push after it announced its first acquisition, mobile payment service Chillr.

The vision is to go deeper into mobile payments and associated services to turn Truecaller into a utility that goes beyond just handling messages and calls, particularly payments — a space that WhatsApp is preparing to enter in India.

Truecaller doesn’t have WhatsApp -like scale — few companies can match 200 million active users in Indua, but it did recently disclose that it has 100 million daily active users worldwide, while India is its largest country with 150 million registered users.

Truecaller has raised over $90 million from investors to date, according to Crunchbase. TechCrunch reported in 2015 that it was in talks to raise $100 million at a valuation of around $1 billion, but a deal never happened. Truecaller has instead raised capital from Swedish investment firm Zenith. Chillr, which offer payment services between over 50 banks, had raised $7.5 million from the likes of Blume Ventures and Sequoia Capital.

Truecaller isn’t disclosing how much it has paid for the deal, but it said that Chillr’s entire team of 45 people will move over and the Chillr service will be phased out. In addition, Chillr CEO Sony Joy will become vice president of Truecaller Pay, running that India-based payment business which will inherit Chillr’s core features.

“We’ve acquired a company that is known for innovation and leading this space in terms of building a fantastic product,” Truecaller co-founder and CSO Nami Zarringhalam told TechCrunch in an interview.

Zarringhalam said the Truecaller team met with Chillr as part of an effort to reach out to partners to build out an ecosystem of third-party services, but quickly realized there was potential to come together.

“We realized we shared synergies in thought processes for caring for the customer and user experience,” he added, explaining that Joy and his Chillr team will “take over the vision of execution of Truecaller Pay.”

Truecaller added payments in India last year

Joy told TechCrunch that he envisages developing Truecaller Pay into one of India’s top three payment apps over the next two years.

Already, the service supports peer-to-peer payments following a partnership with ICICI Bank, but there are plans to layer on additional services from third parties. That could include integrations to provide services such as loans, financing, micro-insurance and more.

Joy pointed out that India’s banking push has seen many people in the country sign up for at least one account, so now the challenge is not necessarily getting banked but instead getting access to the right services. Thanks to gathering information through payments and other customer data, Truecaller could, with permission from users, share data with financial services companies to give users access to services that wouldn’t be able to access otherwise.

“Most citizens have a bank account (in each household), now being underserved is more to do with access to other services,” he explained.

Joy added that Truecaller is aiming to layer in value-added services over its SMS capabilities, digging into the fact that SMS remains a key communication and information channel in India. For example, helping users pay for items confirmed via SMS, or pay for an order which is tracked via SMS.

The development of the service in India has made it look from the outside that the company is splitting into two, a product localized for India and another for the rest of the world. However, Zarringhalam said that the company plans to replicate its approach — payments and more — in other markets.

“It could be based on acquisitions or partners, time will tell,” he said. “But our plan is to develop this for all markers where our market penetration is high and the market dynamics are right.”

Truecaller has raised over $90 million from investors to date, according to Crunchbase. TechCrunch reported in 2015 that it was in talks to raise $100 million at a valuation of around $1 billion, but a deal never happened. Truecaller has instead raised capital from Swedish investment firm Zenith.

Alibaba’s Ant Financial fintech affiliate raises $14 billion to continue its global expansion

Ant Financial, the financial services affiliate connected to Alibaba which operates the Alipay mobile payment service, has confirmed that it has closed a Series C funding round that totals an enormous $14 billion.

The rumors have been flying about this huge financing deal for the past month or so, with multiple publications reporting that Ant — which has been strongly linked with an IPO — was in the market to raise at least $9 billion at a valuation of upwards of $100 billion. That turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg here.

The money comes via a tranche of U.S. dollar financing and Chinese RMB from local investors. Those names include Singapore-based sovereign funds GIC and Temasek, Malaysian sovereign fund Khazanah Nasional Berhad, Warburg Pincus, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Silver Lake and General Atlantic.

Ant said that the money will go towards extending its global expansion (and deepening its presence in non-China markets it has already entered), developing technology and hiring.

“We are pleased to welcome these investors as partners, who share our vision and mission, to embark on our journey to further promote inclusive finance globally and bring equal opportunities to the world. We are proud of, and inspired by, the transformation we have affected in the lives of ordinary people and small businesses over the past 14 years,” Ant Financial CEO and executive chairman Eric Jing said in a statement.

Alibaba itself doesn’t invest in Ant, which it span off shortly before its mega-IPO in the U.S. in 2014, but the company did recently take up an option to own 33 percent of Ant’s shares.

Ant has long been tipped to go public. Back in 2016 when it raised a then blockbuster $4.5 billionlittle did we know it would pull in many multiples more — the company has been reportedly considering a public listing, but it instead opted to raise new capital at a valuation of $60 billion.

It looks like the same again, but with higher stakes. This new Series C round pushes that valuation up to $100 billion, according to Bloomberg. (Ant didn’t comment on its valuation.) So what has Ant done over the past two years to justify that jump?

It has long been a key fintech company in China, where it claims to serve offer 500 million consumers and offers Alipay, digital banking and investment services, but it has begun to replicate that business overseas in recent years. In particular, it has made investments and set up joint-ventures and new businesses in a slew of Asian countries that include India, Thailand, Korea, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The company was, however, unsuccessful in its effort to buy MoneyGram after the U.S. government blocked the $1.2 billion deal.

On the business-side, Ant is said to have posted a $1.4 billion profit over the last year, suggesting it is more than ready to make the leap to being a public firm.

Despite that U.S. deal setback, Ant said today that its global footprint extends to 870 million consumers. I’d take that with a pinch of salt at this point since its business outside of China is in its early stages, but there seems little doubt that it is on the road to replicating its scale in its homeland in many parts of Asia. Raising this huge round only solidifies those plans by providing the kind of capital infusion that tops most of the world’s IPOs in one fell swoop.

Google says over 8 million people use its free WiFi service at railway stations in India

Back in 2015, Google launched an initiative to bring free WiFi to India’s railway stations and today the U.S. tech giant announced that the program has passed its target of reaching 400 stations, attracting a base of eight million users in the process.

The milestone was hit today when Dibrugarh station in northeastern state Assam went online.

Google gave some insight into the scale of the program’s reach when it revealed that over eight million people use the railway-based WiFi each month. On average, the firm said, users consume 350MB in data per session with half going online via the WiFi program at least twice per day.

In another sign of scale, Google began to monetize the initiative earlier this year by offering high-speed connections for a price. The standard option includes ads to develop revenue for Google and its partners, which include Indian Railways and RailTel.

Reaching million users and over 400 stations is hugely impressive but Google said that its journey “remains unfinished.” Beyond connecting stations, the firm wants to add free WiFi to other connection points across India.

“India has the second largest population of internet users in the world, but there are still almost a billion Indians who aren’t online. There are millions of other life-changing journeys that still haven’t been taken. We realize that not everyone in India lives or works near a train station,” Caesar Sengupta, VP of Google’s Next Billion team, wrote in a blog post.

The program is also taking roots overseas. Google has already expanded it to Indonesia and Mexico and Sengupta said that it will make its way to “even more countries soon.”

Google isn’t the only tech giant pioneering a free Wi-Fi model. Facebook’s successor to Internet.org — the program that was banned in India for violating net neutrality regulationslaunched in India last year. The company hasn’t said much about it, but it isn’t likely to have anything like the same scale as Google’s.

Free Wi-Fi isn’t the only India-specific strategy from Google. The U.S. firm has launched a series of local services in India, including data-friendly versions of its top apps, a mobile payment network called Teza food delivery service and — most recently — a social network for local communities.

“Social selling” startup Meesho lands $11.5M Series B led by Sequoia India

Y Combinator alum Meesho, one of several “social selling” startups gaining speed in India, will add more features to its e-commerce platform after closing a $11.5 million Series B led by Sequoia India. Existing investors SAIF Partners, Y Combinator and Venture Highway also returned for the round, which brings the Bangalore-based startup’s total funding so far to $15 million. Its last round of funding, a $3.4 million Series A, was announced last October.

Like social selling competitors including GlowRoad and Zepo, Meesho’s model combines dropshipping from its wholesale partners with a comprehensive suite of e-commerce tools and services. This reduces overhead while making it easy for sellers, who Meesho says includes many housewives, students and retirees, to set up an online business through WhatsApp, Facebook and other social media.

Meesho’s tools include an online platform that allows sellers to manage purchases and process payments, as well as a network of wholesale suppliers (its main categories are currently fashion and lifestyle items) and logistics providers. In other words, it offers almost everything its vendors need to start selling online. This leaves vendors responsible for customer acquisition, picking what items they want to include in their online shops and marketing them.

This reselling model appeals to small stores, as well as individuals, who want to make more money but don’t want the expense of setting up an e-commerce business from scratch and carrying inventory. Meesho’s rivals include e-commerce startups like GlowRoad, Shopmatic and Zepo, which have also recently raised large funding rounds. All of these companies attract sellers by offering a significant amount of help with order management, payment processing, fulfillment and logistics.

In order to differentiate, chief executive officer Vidit Aatrey, who co-founded Meesho in 2015 with Sanjeev Barnwal, its chief technology officer, tells TechCrunch it focuses on product quality, pricing and personalization to help resellers improve their sales and customer service. Meesho claims that more than 800,000 resellers have used its platform and that a “typical” reseller earns between 20,000 to 25,000 rupees per month (about $298 to $373).

In a press statement about the funding, Sequoia India managing director Mohit Bhatnagar said “Social commerce is the future of e-commerce in India. People buy from people they trust, and that’s what Meesho enables.  Entrepreneurs, many of them women, use the Meesho platform to recommend, customize and sell to their family and friends. Social selling is a huge trend and Sequoia India is excited to partner with Meesho, which is the early leader in this space.”

Aatrey says Meesho’s Series B capital will be used to hire more people for its tech and product teams in order to build a suite of new customer acquisition and selling tools. The startup also plans to add more personalization options for its resellers and product categories.

What President Trump Doesn’t Know About ZTE

After meeting with Chinese Vice Premiere Liu He this week, President Trump is still considering easing penalties on Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE over its violation of sanctions against Iran and North Korea. But what Mr. Trump may not realize is that ZTE is also one of the world’s most notorious intellectual property thieves — perhaps even the most notorious of all.

Since stopping Chinese theft of U.S intellectual property is one of the President’s most important trade objectives, Mr. Trump should refuse to ease sanctions against ZTE until it stops its high-tech banditry and starts playing by the rules in intellectual property (IP) matters.

To get a sense of just how egregious ZTE’s behavior truly is, we need only to consult PACER, the national index of federal court cases. A search of PACER reveals that in the U.S. alone, ZTE has been sued for patent infringement an astonishing 126 times just in the last five years. This number is even more shocking when you consider that only a subset of companies who believe their IP rights have been violated by ZTE has the means or the will to spend the millions of dollars needed to wage a multi-year lawsuit in federal courts.

But ZTE’s IP thievery is not confined just to the United States. According to one Chinese tech publication, ZTE has also been sued for patent infringement an additional 100 times in China, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, India, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and other countries. As an intellectual property renegade, ZTE certainly gets around.

Even when it’s not being sued, ZTE thumbs its nose at the traditional rules of fair play in intellectual proper matters, commonly engaging in delay, misrepresentation, and hold out when dealing with patent owners. While ZTE is more than happy to accept royalty payments for the use of its own intellectual property, it rarely if ever pays for the use of others’ IP.

Consider ZTE’s treatment of San Francisco-based Via Licensing Corp, a Swiss-neutral operator of patent pools covering wireless, digital audio, and other building-block components of complex products. Patent pools offer one-stop shopping for product makers to acquire licenses to patents from multiple innovative companies at once. Pools are generally a more efficient, and less litigious, way for product makers to acquire the IP rights they need at reasonable prices.

In 2012, ZTE joined Via’s LTE wireless patent pool, whose members also include Google, AT&T, Verizon, Siemens, China Mobile, and another Chinese tech powerhouse, Lenovo, maker of Motorola-branded smartphones. It helped set the royalty pricing of the pool’s aggregated patent rights, and even received payments from other product makers for their use of ZTE’s own patents within the pool.

But in 2017, precisely when it was ZTE’s turn to pay for its use of other members’ patents in Via’s LTE pool, it suddenly and without ceremony quit the patent pool. Via and its member companies are still trying to get ZTE to pay for its use of their intellectual property — and to abide by the very rules it helped establish in the first place.

Even among much-criticized Chinese companies, ZTE’s behavior is completely outside the norm. Despite what you may hear, some Chinese companies are actually good IP citizens — Lenovo for one. In fact, Via’s various patent pools include more than two dozen Chinese companies who play by the rules.

But ZTE is not one of them. It is a blatant serial IP violator who gives other Chinese companies a bad name. And our government should not reward such behavior.

Ease sanctions on ZTE only when it finally starts respecting intellectual property rights.

Amazon launches a “lite” Android web browser app in India

Amazon has quietly launched an Android web browser app for emerging markets, where access to mobile data and high-speed connectivity is more limited. The browser has the rather generic name of: “Internet: fast, lite and private” on Google Play, and promises to be “lighter than the competition.”

The app first appeared on the Play Store in March, and has fewer than 1,000 downloads, according to data from app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower.

It’s only available to users in India for the time being, and is supported on devices running Android 5.0 or higher.

Like most “lite” apps, the new browser is a small download – it’s under 2 MB in size.

The browser’s Google Play description also notes that it’s “private,” as it doesn’t ask for extra permissions or collect private data like other browsers do. This seems to indicate that it’s meant to be something of a competitor to other private mobile browsers, like Firefox, which blocks website trackers.

The browser additionally supports Private tabs, so you can browse without saving visits to your history, plus other features like tab previews, an automatic fullscreen mode, and integrated news reader of sorts.

In fact, the news reading experience is another telling indication that the browser is only meant for Indian users. The app’s description notes the browser homepage is designed to keep you up-to-date with news, cricket, and entertainment from top sources. Yep, cricket – the most popular sport in India.

 

And finally, the “feedback” email on Google Play points to Amazon India, which indicates it was built by that team.

Amazon would not be the first to build lightweight mobile apps for emerging markets, such as India.

Facebook already offers “lite” versions of its apps, like Facebook Lite and Messenger Lite, to reach users with limited connectivity and access to data. Google has also rolled out a suite of lightweight mobile apps under the “Go” branding. Some of these, like Gmail Go, only come pre-installed on select devices. Others, meanwhile, are available through Google Play for anyone to download, like YouTube Go, Files Go, Google Go, Google Maps, and Google Assistant Go.

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It is interesting, however, that Amazon didn’t adopt a similar strategy by offering a “lite” version of its existing Silk browser, but has instead built something new.

And if its goal is to offer an alternative to Silk on the Fire tablets it sells in India, it’s odd that the browser isn’t yet available in the Amazon Appstore in India.

Amazon has not yet returned a request for comment about the new app.

Ola will add 10,000 electric rickshaws to its India fleet over the next year

Ola announced today that it will add 10,000 electric auto-rickshaws to its fleet in India over the next 12 months. The program, called “Mission: Electric,” is part of its ambitious plan to put one million electric vehicles on the road by 2021. The company launched a trial EV program last year in the city of Nagpur, but has reportedly run into some recent road bumps.

Three-wheel rickshaws are a popular way of making quick trips in many cities and can be hailed through Ola’s app; the company’s electric vehicle trial program in Nagpur, which started in May 2017, already includes rickshaws. As part of “Mission: Electric,” Ola said it will add 10,000 new electric rickshaws across three additional cities this year.

To enable drivers to switch to EVs, Ola’s program also includes infrastructure like rooftop solar panels and charging stations. Last month, however, Factor Daily reported that Ola is scaling back its electric vehicle plans after India’s government appeared to become less enthusiastic about creating an explicit EV policy, despite its previously stated goal of making all new vehicles electric by 2030.

Around the same time, Reuters reported that many Ola drivers participating in its Nagpur trial wanted to switch back to fuel-powered cars because of long waiting times at charging stations and higher operating costs.

An Ola representative told TechCrunch that the company has installed charging dockets at the homes of some drivers so they can save time by swapping out batteries, stating that “with new technologies like battery swapping, the charging experience has been significantly improved.” Ola is currently in discussions with several state and municipal governments about where to launch its electric rickshaw program and is “willing to work with any city committed to sustainable mobility solutions.”

“We have clocked more than four million [electric] kilometers and have learned the ins and outs of vehicles, capabilities and applications. We have learned real-world operating challenges and cost implications of chargers, batteries and solars,” she added. “Deployment of electric vehicles would require support of like-minded partners.”

Google Home and Google Home Mini smart speakers go on sale in India

Google’s two smart speaker products — the Google Home and Google Home Mini — and its Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL smartphones are now available in India following a launch event in the country.

The devices are priced at Rs 9,999 ($154), and Rs 4,499 ($69), respectively, and Google confirmed that they are available for purchase online via Flipkart and offline through over 750 retailer stores, including Reliance Digital, Croma and Bajaj Electronics.

The Google smart speakers don’t cater to India’s multitude of local languages at this point, but the U.S. company said that they do understand “distinctly” India voices and “will respond to you with uniquely Indian contexts,” such as answering questions about local sport, cooking or TV shows.

For a limited time, Google is incentivizing early customers who will get six months of Google Play Music alongside offers for local streaming services Saavn and Gaana when they buy the Home or Home Mini.

Google Home and Home Mini were first announced at Google I/O in 2016. The company said recently that it has sold “tens of millions” of speakers, with more than seven million sales between October 2017 and January 18.

Still, it’s been a long time coming to India, which has allowed others to get into the market first. Amazon, which is pouring considerable resources into its India-based business to battle Flipkart, brought its rival Echo smart devices to India last October.

SoftBank leads $450M investment in Paytm’s e-commerce business

SoftBank is at it again giving money companies that rival startups it has already invested in.

The Japanese firm and its long-time ally (and existing Paytm backer) Alibaba have come together to invest $450 million more into Paytm’s e-commerce business, Paytm Mall, as first reported by Mint. The deal is said to value the business at $1.6-$2 billion, with SoftBank providing around $400 million of the committed investment.

SoftBank is already present in India’s e-commerce space courtesy of an investment in Flipkart via its Vision Fund. The firm also previously backed Snapdeal which it tried to shoehorn into a merger deal with Flipkart that was ultimately unsuccessful.

Alibaba meanwhile has been behind the core Paytm business, which specializes in mobile payments with plans for financial services, having invested $1.4 billion into parent firm One97 Communications last year. This new deal signals its crossing into the e-commerce business, too.

“This latest investment led by Softbank and Alibaba reaffirms the strength of our business model, growth trajectory, execution capability and the potential of India’s massive O2O model in the retail space,” Amit Sinha, Paytm Mall COO, told Mint in a statement.

SoftBank added: “Paytm Mall’s offline-to-online operating model, combined with the strength of the Paytm ecosystem, is uniquely positioned to enable India’s 15 million offline retail shops to participate in India’s eCommerce boom.”

Alibaba’s involvement in Paytm has seen the business — or rather, its many businesses — become proxies for Alibaba in India.

Paytm Mall has linked up with Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace in China to extend the reach of Chinese merchants into India. Similar arrangements have also been reached in Southeast Asia via Alibaba’s Lazada e-commerce business.

Alibaba has also got behind the mobile payment component of Paytm — which bears a likeness to its Alipay  unit — while you can see the influence of the Chinese firm, and in particular its Ant Financial affiliate, with Paytm’s plans to launch digital banking and other online financial services in India.

Indeed, it was through investments by Ant Financial that Alibaba first became associated with Paytm. It’s not a huge surprise, then, to see that SoftBank — often a co-investor — is also spreading its influence across the Paytm business. After all, Alibaba needs all the help it can get to battle Amazon directly in India.

Uber’s India rival Ola could add public transport services following latest acquisition

The rumors are true, India’s Uber rival/potential-future-M&A-buddy Ola has acquired transportation startup Ridlr in an undisclosed deal.

Mint reported the imminent transaction last week, describing it as a fire sale, and today Ola confirmed the deal. The terms are undisclosed so you can make of that what you will.

Founded in 2010, Ridlr operates as a personal transport portal that allowed users buy tickets for public transport in 17 Indian cities and also monitor traffic congestion using IOT devices. The company had raised over $6 million from investors that include Qualcomm Ventures, Times Internet, Matrix Partners (which is also an Ola backer.)

Ola isn’t saying too much about how it plans to use Ridlr other than that the deal will “bring new technology and mobility options as [Ola] works to expand into and partner with cities in India and abroad.” The company already offers a range of ride-sharing options, bike-sharing, food deliveries and a mobile wallet, but it plans to give more color on the proposed new services in the next month or so.

In its deal scoop, Mint claimed Ridlr will help improve Ola’s navigation and potentially see it add public transport booking options. That might sound at odds with a ride-hailing app, but when you consider that many people use buses or trains for the bulk of their commute and a taxi to get to their final destination, the move could help Ola own the “end-to-end” journey in full. At the least, that’s a strategy that Uber hasn’t explored and that potential alone — to be a differentiator — might make it worth a look.

Ridlr will continue to operate as an independent business “for now,” an Ola representative told TechCrunch, who also clarified that it will become a wholly owned subsidiary of Ola parent Ani Technologies.

Albeit seemingly not an expensive one, this deal marks Ola’s seventh investment.

The largest outlays have been rival TaxiForSure for $200 million in 2015 and FoodPanda India last December which relaunched its food delivery business. Other deals have included taxi radio service Gcabs.in, trip-planning service Geotagg and payment startup Qarth. The firm also made a minority investment in Zipcash.

Despite today’s news, the larger story around Ola is whether it will merge with Uber in the same way that the U.S. firm recently struck a deal with Grab to exit money-losing market Southeast Asia.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has said that there will be no more global retreats — Uber previously struck exit deals in China and Russia — but there has been constant press speculation and reports of an ongoing dialogue between Uber and Ola over a potential deal. Unlike China and Southeast Asia, sources at Uber believe that the company’s India-based service is ahead of the local rival so don’t feel the need to push for consolidation.

But there are other factors.

As was the case with Grab and Didi, Ola counts SoftBank as an investor and, since it landed an investment in Uber, the Japanese firm has been pushing for Uber to do deals in unprofitable markets and focus on more lucrative countries in the West. The issue is particularly acute since Uber is reportedly targeting an IPO as soon as 2019 and it would need to get its finances in line accordingly.

Nonetheless, Ola is already branching out overseas via a recent launch in Australia and, publicly at least, it is committed to being around for “decades.”

“In India’s transformative digital journey, Ola will always be an active and integral part for decades to come. SoftBank and all other investors are committed in realizing this ambition. Ola is always actively looking for opportunities for expansion of its footprint,” the firm told TechCrunch in a statement.