Netflix to test free weekend-long access in India

Netflix plans to give users in India access to its service at no charge for a weekend as part of a test to expand its reach in the country, a top company executive said Tuesday.

The American streaming giant, which reported slow users growth for the quarter that ended in September, recently stopped offering a first-month complimentary access to new users in the U.S. But the company plans to keep experimenting with new ways to lure potential customers, said Greg Peters, COO and Chief Product Officer at Netflix on the company’s earnings call.

One of those new ways is giving away access to Netflix at no charge to customers for a weekend in different markets, he said. The company has picked India as the first market where it will test this idea and “will see how that goes,” from there, he said.

“We think that giving away everyone in a country access to Netflix for free for a weekend could be a great way to expose a bunch of new people to the amazing stories that we have, the service and how it works … and hopefully get a bunch of those folks to sign up,” he said.

This won’t be the first time Netflix uses India as a test bed to explore new ideas. The company first flirted with the idea of a $2.7 mobile-only monthly plan in New Delhi before introducing it as a permanent tier in the country last year and then nearly a dozen markets. It has since tested even more pricing plans in the country.

India emerged as the largest open battleground for Silicon Valley and Chinese firms searching for their next billion users in the past decade. Amazon, Google, Apple, Spotify and several other firms offer a range of their services at a much lower price in India.

More to follow…

SAIF Partners rebrands as Elevation Capital, secures $400 million for its new India fund

SAIF Partners has raised $400 million for a new fund and rebranded the 18-year-old influential venture capital firm as it looks to back more early-stage startups in the world’s second largest internet market.

The new fund is SAIF Partners’ seventh for early-stage startups in India. Its previous two funds were each $350 million in size, and the firm today manages more than $2 billion in assets.

SAIF Partners started investing in Indian startups 18 years ago. The firm began as a joint venture with SoftBank and its first high-profile investment was Sify. But the two firms’ joint venture ended more than a decade ago, so the firm is now getting around to rebranding itself, Ravi Adusumalli, the managing partner of SAIF Partners, told TechCrunch in an interview.

The firm — which has five unicorns in its portfolio, including Paytm’s parent firm One97 Communications, food delivery startup Swiggy and online learning platform Unacademy — is rebranding itself as Elevation Capital.

“Elevation reflects our investment ethos and re-emphasises our commitment to the founders who help redefine our future. For our existing partners, it is a commitment of continued collaboration on our path-breaking journeys together. For our new partners, it is a promise to do all we can to achieve great heights together, from day one,” said Adusumalli.

SAIF Partners has backed more than 100 startups to date. The venture firm makes long-term bets on founders and backs young firms beginning their early years when they are raising their seed, pre-Series A and Series A financing rounds.

The venture firm invests in startups operating in a wide-range of sectors and plans to continue this strategy and add more areas of interest, said Deepak Gaur, a managing director at Elevation Capital, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“Enterprise SaaS is one area where we are spending a lot of resources,” he said. “We believe the time has come for this sector and we will see many global companies emerge from India.”

More than 15 startups in Elevation Capital’s portfolio are projected to become a unicorn in the next few years, according to Tracxn, a firm that tracks startups and investments in India. These include healthcare booking platform PharmEasy, app-based platform to book home services Urban Company, insurance tech startup Acko, digital loan platform Capital Float, real estate property marketplace NoBroker and online marketplace for gold Rupeek.

A number of SAIF Partners-backed startups, including IndiaMART, MakeMyTrip and Justdial, have become publicly listed companies, too.

Mukul Arora, a managing partner at SAIF Partners, said that the state of the Indian startup ecosystem has changed for the better in the past decade. “A few years ago, we were seeing many startups replicate a foreign company’s play in India. Today, we are seeing our ideas being replicated outside of the country. Someone is building a Meesho for Brazil,” he said.

The founders have also grown more sophisticated, said Mayank Khanduja. Elevation Capital has over three dozen employees, with about two-dozen focused on the investment size.

Elevation Capital’s new fund comes at a time when many established venture capital firms have also closed their new funds for India in recent months. In July, Sequoia Capital announced two funds — totaling $1.35 billion in size — for India. A month later, Lightspeed raised $275 million for its third Indian fund. Accel late last year closed its sixth fund in India at $550 million.

All of the LPs participating in Elevation Capital’s new fund, as was the case with previous funds, are U.S.-based, and the vast majority of them are nonprofits, said Adusumalli. Without disclosing any figures, he said the firm’s previous funds have performed very well.

Uber is hiring hundreds of engineers in India to cut costs

Uber said on Thursday it is working to hire 225 engineers in India, strengthening its tech team in the key overseas market months after it eliminated thousands of jobs globally.

The ride-hailing firm, which competes with Ola in India, said today it has hired Manikandan Thangarathnam, who spent nearly 13 years as a director of engineering at Amazon, to lead the company’s rider and platform engineering teams in Bangalore. (Last month, Uber announced it would hire 140 engineers in India. Today it said it was in the process of hiring an additional 85 engineers.)

The move comes as several high-profile engineers have left Uber India in recent months to join Google and Amazon among other tech giants. A senior engineer, who recently left Uber, told TechCrunch that many of his peers had lost confidence in Uber’s future prospects in the country.

Uber said its tech expansion plans in India were in line with its vision to make mobility and delivery “more accessible” and becoming the “backbone” of transportation in thousands of cities across the globe.

The company recently also hired Jayaram Valliyur as a senior director to lead its global finance technology team. Prior to this role, Jayaram, too, worked at Amazon, where he spent 14 years.

In July, news outlet The Information described Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi’s plan to move engineering roles to India as a cost saving measure. The report said Khosrowshahi’s plan had sparked internal debates.

Thuan Pham, Uber’s longtime chief technology officer, who left the company earlier this year, reportedly cautioned that hiring more engineers so quickly in India would “require accepting lower-quality candidates.”

Uber and Ola both claim to be the No. 1 ride-hailing service in India. But Rajeev Misra, the chief of SoftBank Vision Fund which is a common investor in both the companies, said last month that Ola maintained a “small lead” over Uber in India.

WarnerMedia to discontinue HBO and WB TV channels in India, and select other South Asia markets

WarnerMedia will discontinue HBO and WB TV channels in India, Pakistan, Maldives, and Bangladesh later this year as the entertainment conglomerate struggles to find a sustainable business model in South Asian despite operating in the region for over a decade.

The company said it will end HBO and WB TV channels in the aforementioned markets, where a cable subscription costs about $4 to $5 a month, on December 15. In India, for instance, it costs less than 25 cents to subscribe to both HBO (in HD) and WB atop a monthly cable plan, which costs about $2.

While HBO is a household name in the U.S. and several other developed markets, in India and other South Asian nations, its audience size remains tiny. Times Internet’s Movies Now, Star Movies, and Sony Pix had a considerably larger viewership than HBO in India last month, according to Broadcast Audience Research Council, India’s ratings agency.

Warner Media cited a dramatic market shift in the pay-TV industry for its decision. It said it will continue to offer Cartoon Network and Pogo in India, and distribute CNN International in the country.

“After 20 years of successes for the HBO linear movie channel in South Asia and more than a decade with the WB linear movie channel, this was a difficult decision to make. The pay-TV industry landscape and the market dynamics have shifted dramatically, and the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for further change,” said Siddharth Jain, SVP and Managing Director of WarnerMedia’s entertainment network in South Asia, in a statement.

HBO also maintains a content syndication partnership with Disney’s Hotstar in India. So the streamer will continue to offer HBO’s shows such as “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” — hopefully without any censorship — in the country.

“WarnerMedia has a strong interest in India and are committed to assessing optimal opportunities to serve valued customers here,” said Jain.

Trump’s latest immigration restrictions are bad news for American workers

I’m an immigrant, and since arriving from India two decades ago I’ve earned a Ph.D., launched two companies, created almost 100 jobs, sold a business to Google and generated a 10x-plus return for my investors.

I’m grateful to have had the chance to live the American dream, becoming a proud American citizen and creating prosperity for others along the way. But here’s the rub: I’m exactly the kind of person that President Trump’s added immigration restrictions that require U.S. companies to offer jobs to U.S. citizens first and narrowing the list of qualifications to make one eligible for the H-1B visa, is designed to keep out of the country.

In tightening the qualifications for H-1B admittances, along with the L visas used by multinationals and the J visas used by some students, the Trump administration is closing the door to economic growth. Study after study shows that the H-1B skilled-worker program creates jobs and drives up earnings for American college grads. In fact, economists say that if we increased H-1B admittances, instead of suspending them, we’d create 1.3 million new jobs and boost GDP by $158 billion by 2045.

Barring people like me will create short-term chaos for tech companies already struggling to hire the people they need. That will slow growth, stifle innovation and reduce job creation. But the lasting impact could be even worse. By making America less welcoming, President Trump’s order will take a toll on American businesses’ ability to attract and retain the world’s brightest young people.

Consider my story. I came to the United States after earning a degree in electrical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), a technical university known as the MIT of India. The year I entered, several hundred thousand people applied for just 10,000 spots, making IIT significantly more selective than the real MIT. Four years later, I graduated and, along with many of the other top performers in my cohort, decided to continue my studies in America.

Back then, it was simply a given that bright young Indians would travel to America to continue their education and seek their fortune. Many of us saw the United States as the pinnacle of technological innovation, and also as a true meritocracy — somewhere that gave immigrants a fair shake, rewarded hard work and let talented young people build a future for themselves.

I was accepted by 10 different colleges, and chose to do a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois because of its top-ranked computer science program. As a grad student, I developed new ways of keeping computer chips from overheating that are now used in server farms all over the world. Later, I put in a stint at McKinsey before launching my own tech startup, an app-testing platform called Appurify, which Google bought and integrated into their Cloud offerings.

I spent a couple of years at Google, but missed building things from scratch, so in 2016 I launched atSpoke, an AI-powered ticketing platform that streamlines IT and HR support. We’ve raised $28 million, hired 60 employees and helped companies including Cloudera, DraftKings and Mapbox create more efficient workplaces and manage the transition to remote working.

Stories like mine aren’t unusual. Moving to a new country takes optimism, ambition and tolerance for risk — all factors that drive many immigrants to start businesses of their own. Immigrants found businesses at twice the rate of the native born, starting about 30% of all new businesses in 2016 and more than half of the country’s billion-dollar unicorn startups. Many now-iconic American brands, including Procter & Gamble, AT&T, Google, Apple, and even Bank of America, were founded by immigrants or their children.

We take it for granted that America is the destination of choice for talented young people, especially those with vital technical skills. But nothing lasts forever. Since I arrived two decades ago, India’s tech scene has blossomed, making it far easier for kids to find opportunities without leaving the country. China, Canada, Australia and Europe are also competing for global talent by making it easier for young immigrants to bring their talent and skills, often including an American education, to join their workforces or start new businesses.

To shutter employment-based visa programs, even temporarily, is to shut out the innovation and entrepreneurialism our economy desperately needs. Worse still, though, doing so makes it harder for the world’s best and brightest young people to believe in the American dream and drives many to seek opportunities elsewhere. The true legacy of Trump’s executive order is that it will be far harder for American businesses to compete for global talent in years to come — and that will ultimately hamper job creation, slow our economy and hurt American workers.

OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei leaves the company to start a new venture

Carl Pei, who co-founded the smartphone giant OnePlus in his 20s, is leaving the company, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

Pei played an instrumental role in designing the OnePlus smartphone lineup over the years, including the recently launched OnePlus Nord, which has been the company’s biggest hit to date. Outside Shenzhen, China, where OnePlus is headquartered, Pei has also been the face of the Chinese firm, appearing at trade conferences, interacting with loyal customers, and giving interviews to the media.

In the early years of OnePlus, Pei devised various marketing strategies for best positioning the company’s products and create a hype about them. In 2014 and 2015, when OnePlus struggled with scaling its inventories, the company sold its phones through invites and several other clever marketing techniques including one in which people were required to destroy their current phones to buy a new OnePlus smartphone.

In the early days of OnePlus, Pei lived almost exclusively in low-cost hotels in China and India to better understand the market and easily travel to new cities. OnePlus is now one of the most successful premium smartphone makers in India and several other markets.

“We did’t have proper product management. What we lacked in experience, we made up in hours,” he said in an earlier interview. He talked more about the company’s early days and the state of the smartphone market at Disrupt 2019.

Once he publicly asked Samsung to hire him so that he could learn more about overseeing operations and logistics. “So, Samsung, today I have a proposal for you: let me be your intern. Seriously. I would be honored to learn from your team about how you’ve been able to scale, run, and manage your business so successfully,” he wrote on his personal blog.

Pei reached out to Pete Lau in 2012 through social media. The two started OnePlus a year later. “He said, ‘I want to change the world.’ I thought this kid has ambitious thoughts and dreams. I think it comes from the heart and it’s very important. I think he has tenacity,” Lau recalled in an interview in 2015.

Years before they started OnePlus, Pei collaborated with a friend and sold whitelabeled MP3 players in China.

Pei, 31, is not joining Samsung, but has clarity on what he wishes to do next. He is starting his own venture and is in talks with investors to raise capital, according to one of the sources who requested anonymity as they are not authorized to speak to the media. Carl did not respond to a request for comment early Monday.

With thousands of subscribers, The Juggernaut raises $2 million for a South Asian-focused news outlet

As paid newsletters grow in popularity, Snigdha Sur, the founder of South Asian-focused media company The Juggernaut, has no qualms about avoiding the approach entirely. In October 2017, Sur started The Juggernaut as a free newsletter, called InkMango. As she searched for news on the South Asian diaspora, she found that articles lacked original reporting, aggregation was becoming repetitive and mainstream news organizations weren’t answering big questions.

Then InkMango crossed 700 free readers, and Sur saw an opportunity for a full-bodied media company, not just a newsletter.

One year and a Y Combinator graduation later, The Juggernaut has worked with more than 100 contributors (both journalists and illustrators) to provide analysis on South Asian news. Recent headlines on The Juggernaut include: The Evolution of Padma Lakshmi; How Ancestry Test Results Became Browner; and How the Death of a Bollywood Actor Became a Political Proxy War. The network approach, instead of a single newesletter approach,aggreff is working so far: Sur says that The Juggernaut has garnered “thousands of subscribers.” During COVID-19, The Juggernaut’s net subscribers have grown 20% to 30% month over month, she said.

On the heels of this growth, The Juggernaut announced today that it has raised a $2 million seed round led by Precursor Ventures to hire editors and a full-time growth engineer, and expand new editorial projects. Other investors in the round include Unpopular Ventures, Backstage Capital, New Media Ventures and Old Town Media. Angels include former Andreessen Horowitz general partner Balaji Srinivasan; co-founder of Kabam, Holly Liu; and co-founder of sports-focused publication The Athletic, Adam Hansmann.

Currently, The Juggernaut charges $3.99 a month for an annual subscription, $9.99 a month for a monthly subscription and $249.99 for a lifetime subscription to the news outlet. It also offers a seven-day free trial (with a conversation rate to paid at over 80%) and has a free newsletter, which Sur says will remain free to bring in top-of-the-funnel customers.

The Juggernaut is part of a growing number of media companies trying to directly monetize off of subscriptions instead of advertisements, such as The Information, The Athletic, and even our very own Extra Crunch. If successful, the hope is that paid subscriptions will prove more sustainable and lucrative than advertising, which still dominates in media.

But Sur is purposely pacing herself when it comes to expenses in the early days. The team currently has only three full-time staff, including Sur, culture editor Imaan Sheikh and one full-time writer, Michaela Stone Cross.

Snigdha Sur, the founder of The Juggernaut.

“Sometimes at media companies people over-hire and over-promise, and then don’t deliver on the profitability or return,” she said. For this reason, The Juggernaut largely works with “freelancers who would probably never join any specific publication,” Sur said. While The Juggernaut hopes to have full-time staff writers eventually, the contributor approach helps temper spending.

Beyond pace, The Juggernaut is looking to build up its subscriber base by writing stories that require deep, creative thinking. The publication intentionally does not cover commoditized breaking news, which could have the potential to bring in more inbound traffic, or anything that doesn’t have a South Asian connection.

Sur is living the stories that she is working to tell. Born in Chhattisgarh, India, she grew up in the Bronx and Queens in New York City, and spent time living and working in Mumbai, India. Since founding The Juggernaut, her goal for the publication has been to be a place for not just South Asians, but for “anyone who has a form of curiosity and appreciation” for South Asian culture.

“We try not to translate words we don’t have to do, we’re not trying to dumb this down, we’re not trying to write for the white teen,” she said. “We’re trying to write for the smart, curious person. And we’re going to assume you know stuff.”

India’s Razorpay becomes unicorn after new $100 million funding round

Bangalore-headquartered Razorpay, one of the handful of Indian fintech startups that has demonstrated accelerated growth in recent years, has joined the coveted unicorn club after raising $100 million in a new financing round, the payments processing startup said on Monday.

The new financing round, a Series D, was co-led by Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC and Sequoia India, the six-year-old Indian startup said. The new round valued the startup at “a little more than $1 billion,” co-founder and chief executive Harshil Mathur told TechCrunch in an interview.

Existing investors Ribbit Capital, Tiger Global, Y Combinator, and Matrix Partners also participated in the round, which brings Razorpay’s total to-date raise to $206.5 million.

Razorpay accepts, processes, and disburses money online for small businesses and enterprises. In recent years, the startup has expanded its offerings to provide loans to businesses and also launched a neo-banking platform to issue corporate credit cards, among other products.

Mathur and Shashank Kumar (pictured above), who met each other at IIT Roorkee, started Razorpay in 2014. They began to explore opportunities around payments processing business after realizing just how difficult it was for small businesses such as young startups to accept money online less than a decade ago. There were very few payment processing firms in India then and startups needed to produce a long-list of documents.

The early team of about 11 people at Razorpay shared a single apartment as the co-founders rushed to meet with over 100 bankers to convince banks to work with them. The conversations were slow and remained in a deadlock for so long that the co-founders felt helpless explaining the same challenge to investors numerous times, they recalled in an interview last year.

To say things have changed for Razorpay would be an understatement. It’s become the largest payments provider for business in India, said Mathur. Razorpay, which competes with Prosus Ventures’ PayU, accepts a wide-range of payment options including credit cards, debit cards, mobile wallets, and UPI.

“Razorpay has established itself as a clear leader, with its strong focus on customer experience and product innovation,” said Choo Yong Cheen, Chief Investment Officer for Private Equity at GIC, in a statement. “GIC has a long track record of partnering with leading fintech companies globally and is delighted to partner with Razorpay in its journey to transform payments and banking.”

Some of Razorpay’s clients include budget lodging decacorn Oyo, e-commerce giant Tokopedia, top food delivery startups Zomato and Swiggy, online learning platform Byju’s, ride-hailing giant Gojek, supply chain platform Zilingo, caller ID service Truecaller, travel ticketing firms Yatra and Goibibo, and telecom giant Airtel.

The startup expects to process about $25 billion in transactions — up five times from last year — for nearly 10 million of its customers this year, said Mathur.

He attributed some of the growth to the coronavirus pandemic, which he said has accelerated the digital adoption among many businesses.

On the neo-banking and capital side, Mathur said, Razorpay expects RazorpayX and Razorpay Capital to account for about 35% of the startup’s revenue by the end of March next year.

Mathur said the startup’s payment processing service continues to be its fastest growing business and does not need much capital to grow, so the startup will be deploying the fresh funds to expand its neo-banking offerings to include vendor payment, and expense and tax management and other features.

The startup, which aims to work with over 50 million businesses by 2025, may also acquire a few firms as it explores opportunities around inorganic expansion in the neo-banking category, said Mathur.

“We will continue to make an impactful contribution to the growth of the industry, aid adoption in the under-served markets and drive new practices and a new thinking for the industry to follow. And this investment fits perfectly with our growth strategy,” he said.

While the coronavirus pandemic has slowed down deal-makings in India, about half a dozen startups in the country including online leaning platform Unacademy, and Pine Labs have secured the unicorn status.

Pakistan bans TikTok over ‘immoral and indecent’ videos

Pakistan has banned popular short video app TikTok in the nation, citing circulation of videos that it deemed “immoral and indecent.”

The move comes months after the South Asian country raised serious concerns about the nature of some videos on ByteDance’s app and the impact they posed on society.

Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, the country’s telecommunication authority, said in a statement Friday evening that despite the warnings and months-long time, TikTok “failed to comply with the instructions, therefore, directions were issued for blocking of TikTok application in the country.” The authority had received a “number of complaints from different segments of the society” over the videos, it said.

Some individuals in Pakistan, a nation with about 75 million internet users, told TechCrunch that the TikTok app and its website were already inaccessible to them.

“TikTok has been informed that the authority is open for engagement and will review its decision subject to a satisfactory mechanism by TikTok to moderate unlawful content,” said Pakistan Telecommunication Authority in a statement.

The move from Pakistan comes months after its neighboring nation, India, banned TikTok, Bigo and 57 other apps developed by Chinese firms over cybersecurity concerns. Prior to the ban, TikTok identified India — where it had amassed over 200 million monthly active users — as its biggest market outside of China. Like in India, TikTok is also immensely popular in Pakistan, said Danish Khalid, an executive at Bykea, a Karachi-headquartered ride-hailing startup.

And then there is the U.S., the biggest market by revenue for TikTok, where also the app’s future remains uncertain.

High-profile startup execs back Indian influencers platform CreatorOS

The advent of low-cost Android smartphones and the world’s cheapest mobile data has paved the way for millions of social media influencers in India to amass a following of tens of millions of users in recent years.

These influencers, also known as creators, share their daily vlogs, thoughts on a wide range of issues, and some engage with big brands to help sell their products to niche, loyal audiences. E-commerce giant Flipkart and scores of several other businesses today work with these influencers.

But India’s ban on TikTok, the Chinese short-video app that reached more than 200 million users in the country, in late June unearthed some of the biggest problems these creators face today: They are too reliant on a handful of platforms, and their work structure is not well organized.

A new startup believes it has built the platform to help creators assume more control over their work. And a number of high-profile entrepreneurs agree.

On Friday, Madhavan Malolan announced CreatorOS, a platform that enables creators to build, manage and grow their businesses. About 1,000 creators including a number of short-film makers, teachers, consultants have already joined the platform, Madhavan, who co-founded the startup, formerly known as Socionity, in January this year. Prior to CreatorOS, he worked at a number of firms including Microsoft.

“We believe that these creators will become an entrepreneur in the coming decade. So we are creating tools, connections and infrastructure that they will need to run their digital businesses. Currently, there is a lot of spray and pray happening on the creator’s part. They are producing videos in hopes that they go viral so more people in the industry discover them,” said Madhavan in an interview with TechCrunch.

The marquee tool on CreatorOS today is an app-builder that allows creators to build their own apps, push and sell their content in it, and build their own communities. Madhavan said CreatorOS has overly reduced the efforts that need to go into building an app to simply drag and drop.

The startup said today it has also raised $500,000 from a clutch of high-profile names. Some of the angel investors include Phanindra Sama (founder and former chief executive of online ticket booking platform RedBus.in), Gaurav Munjal (co-founder and chief executive of online learning platform Unacademy), Kalyan Krishnamurthy (chief executive of Flipkart Group), Sujeet Kumar (co-founder of business-to-business marketplace Udaan), Vidit Aatrey (co-founder and chief executive of social e-commerce Meesho), Vivekananda Hallekere (co-founder and chief executive of mobility firm Bounce), and Alvin Tse (GM of Xiaomi Indonesia).

Madhavan said that the trust that so many established entrepreneurs showed in CreatorOS convinced him that he did not need to engage with VC firms yet and instead put the entire focus on serving creators. He said the ban on TikTok and how so many startups are trying to scale their short-video apps has created an immense opportunity for CreatorOS.

The startup expects to have more than 5,000 creators on its platform by the end of the year. It is working with creators to understand and build more features that would benefit them, said Madhavan.