Bessemer Venture Partners closes on $3.3 billion across two funds

Another major VC firm has closed two major rounds, underscoring the long-term confidence investors continue to have for backing privately-held companies in the tech sector.

Early-stage VC firm Bessemer Venture Partners announced Thursday the close of two new funds totaling $3.3 billion that it will be using both to back early-stage startups as well as growth rounds for more mature companies.

The Redwood City-based firm closed BVP XI with $2.475 billion and BVP Century II with $825 million in total commitments.

With BVP XI, it plans to focus on early-stage companies spanning across enterprise, consumer, healthcare, and frontier technologies. 

Its Century II fund is aimed at backing growth-stage companies that Bessemer believes “will define the next century,” and will include both follow-on rounds for existing portfolio companies or investments in new ones.

BVP XI marks Bessemer’s largest fund in its 110-year history. In October 2018, the firm brought in $1.85 billion for its tenth flagship VC fund. This latest fund is its fifth consecutive billion-dollar fund, based on PitchBook data. 

Despite being founded more than 100 years ago, Bessemer didn’t actually enter the venture business until 1965. It’s known for its investments in LinkedIn, Blue Apron and many others, with a current portfolio that includes PagerDuty, Shippo, Electric and DocuSign. Exits include Twitch and Shopify, among many others.

With more money than ever before available for backing startups, the challenge now for VCs is to see how and if they can find (and invest in) whatever will define the next generation of tech. 

“As venture capitalists, we pay too much attention to pattern recognition and matching when in reality, the biggest opportunities exist where those patterns break,” the firm wrote in a blog post today. “Our job is to make perceptive bets on the future, especially those that others will dismiss and ridicule. We are fundamental optimists and strong believers in the power of innovation; our life’s work is putting our reputation, time, and money to help entrepreneurs realize a different future. They’re the ones pioneering something entirely new and obscure – a technology, a business model, a category.

In addition to announcing the new funds, Bessemer also revealed today that it’s brought on five new partners including Jeff Blackburn, who joins after a 22-year career at Amazon, alongside the promotion of existing investors Mary D’Onofrio, Mike Droesch, Tess Hatch, and Andrew Hedin.

Most recently at Amazon, Blackburn served as senior vice president of worldwide business development where he oversaw dozens of Amazon’s minority investments and more than 100 acquisitions across all business lines – including retail, Kindle, Echo, Alexa, FireTV, advertising, music, streaming audio & video, and Amazon Web Services.  

“Having been part of Amazon for more than two decades, I’m excited to begin a new chapter helping customer-focused founders build breakthrough companies,” said Blackburn in a written statement.  “I’ve known the Bessemer team for many years and have long admired their strategic vision and success backing early-stage ventures.” 

With the latest changes, Bessemer now has 21 partners and over 45 investors, advisors, and platform “team members” located in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Boston, London, Tel Aviv, Bangalore, and Beijing. 

“At Bessemer, there’s no corner office or consensus; every partner has the choice, independently, to pen a check. This kind of accountability and autonomy means a founder is teaming up with a partner and board director who thoroughly understands your business and can respond quickly and decisively,” the firm’s blog post read.

Bessemer’s task is all the more difficult because there is more competition than ever before to get into the best deals. TCV closed on a record $4 billion fund to invest in e-commerce, fintech, edtech, travel and more in late January.

Last November, Andreessen Horowitz (a16z)  closed a pair of funds totaling $4.5 billion. The firm raised $1.3 billion for an early-stage fund focused on consumer, enterprise and fintech; and closed a $3.2 billion growth-stage fund for later-stage investments.

And, last April, Insight, the firm that has backed the likes of Twitter and Shopify and invests across a range of consumer and enterprise startups, announced it had closed a fund of $9.5 billion, money it said it would be using to support startups and “scale-ups” (larger and older startups that are still private) in the coming months.

Berlin’s MorphAIs hopes its AI algorithms will put its early-stage VC fund ahead of the pack

MorphAIs is a new VC out of Berlin, aiming to leverage AI algorithms to boost its investment decisions in early-stage startups. But there’s a catch: it hasn’t raised a fund yet.

The firm was founded by Eva-Valérie Gfrerer who was previously head of Growth Marketing at FinTech startup OptioPay and her background is in Behavioural Science and Advanced Information Systems.

Gfrerer says she started MorphAIs to be a tech company, using AI to assess venture investments and then selling that as a service. But after a while, she realized the platform could be applied an in-house fund, hence the drive to now raise a fund.

MorphAIs has already received financing from some serial entrepreneurs, including: Max Laemmle, CEO & Founder Fraugster, previously Better Payment and SumUp; Marc-Alexander Christ, Co-Founder SumUp, previously Groupon (CityDeal) and JP Morgan Chase; Charles Fraenkl, CEO SmartFrog, previously CEO at Gigaset and AOL; Andreas Winiarski, Chairman & Founder awesome capital Group.

She says: “It’s been decades since there has been any meaningful innovation in the processes by which venture capital is allocated. We have built technology to re-invent those processes and push the industry towards more accurate allocation of capital and a less-biased and more inclusive start-up ecosystem.”

She points out that over 80% of early-stage VC funds don’t deliver the minimum expected return rate to their investors. This is true, but admittedly, the VC industry is almost built to throw a lot of money away, in the hope that it will pick the winner that makes up for all the losses.

She now plans to aim for a pre-seed/seed fund, backed by a team consisting of machine learning scientists, mathematicians, and behavioral scientists, and claims that MorphAIs is modeling consistent 16x return rates, after running real-time predictions based on market data.

Her co-founder is Jan Saputra Müller, CTO and Co-Founder, who co-founded and served as CTO for several machine learning companies, including askby.ai.

There’s one problem: Gfrerer’s approach is not unique. For instance, London-based Inreach Ventures has made a big play of using data to hunt down startups. And every other VC in Europe does something similar, more or less.

Will Gfrerer manage to pull off something spectacular? We shall have to wait and find out.

Calling Oslo VCs: Be featured in The Great TechCrunch Survey of European VC

TechCrunch is embarking on a major project to survey the venture capital investors of Europe, and their cities.

Our <a href=”https://forms.gle/k4Ji2Ch7zdrn7o2p6”>survey of VCs in Oslo and Norway will capture how the country is faring, and what changes are being wrought amongst investors by the coronavirus pandemic.

We’d like to know how Norway’s startup scene is evolving, how the tech sector is being impacted by COVID-19, and, generally, how your thinking will evolve from here.

Our survey will only be about investors, and only the contributions of VC investors will be included. More than one partner is welcome to fill out the survey. (Please note, if you have filled the survey out already, there is no need to do it again).

The shortlist of questions will require only brief responses, but the more you can add, the better.

You can fill out the survey here.

Obviously, investors who contribute will be featured in the final surveys, with links to their companies and profiles.

What kinds of things do we want to know? Questions include: Which trends are you most excited by? What startup do you wish someone would create? Where are the overlooked opportunities? What are you looking for in your next investment, in general? How is your local ecosystem going? And how has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy?

This survey is part of a broader series of surveys we’re doing to help founders find the right investors.

https://techcrunch.com/extra-crunch/investor-surveys/

For example, here is the recent survey of London.

You are not in Norway, but would like to take part? That’s fine! Any European VC investor can STILL fill out the survey, as we probably will be putting a call out to your country next anyway! And we will use the data for future surveys on vertical topics.

The survey is covering almost every country on in the Union for the Mediterranean, so just look for your country and city on the survey and please participate (if you’re a venture capital investor).

Thank you for participating. If you have questions you can email [email protected]

(Please note: Filling out the survey is not a guarantee of inclusion in the final published piece).

UpEquity raises $25 million in equity and debt for its cash-pay mortgage lending service

With a stated goal of aligning the mortgage industry with consumer interests, Austin-based UpEquity has raised $25 million in equity and debt funding to expand its business.

Chief executive Tim Herman started the mortgage lending company to take advantage of what he saw as inefficiencies in the $2 trillion U.S. housing market.

Existing financial services and property technology companies treat the symptom and not the cause of market inefficiencies, said Herman.

The company makes free cash offers but charges 2.5% on the loans it makes to homebuyers to give them the cash they need to make an offer before having to go through the traditional process of taking out a home loan through a bank. Then the homeowners can make payments directly to UpEquity to pay off the mortgage on the house.

“Our cash offer works like a guarantee that during the escrow period we will be able to get the mortgage in place,” Herman said.

A U.S. Naval Academy graduate and former fighter pilot, Herman saw real estate as the only avenue to true wealth creation open to him and his family given their years on the road and lack of available investment capital.

After the Navy, Herman went to Harvard Business School and met his co-founder Louis Wilson. It was in Boston while in B-School that the two men started UpEquity.

They since relocated to Austin because of its booming housing market and relatively more relaxed regulatory environment.

Ultimately, the pitch to customers is the ability to make an all-cash offer, which dramatically improves the likelihood of closing on a house. It’s a luxury that roughly 90 percent of Americans can’t afford, Herman said. There’s no downside for selling homeowners, if a purchaser doesn’t end up buying the home then UpEquity owns the house.

Of all of the 300 deals the company has done so far, only two have failed.

That’s why a company like UpEquity can raise $7.5 million in venture and $17.5 million in venture debt to start making loans.

The company’s A round was led by Next Coast Ventures and UpEquity said it would use the money to fund product development that can slash the time-to-close for the real estate agents that act as the company’s sales channel to ten days.

“Our goal is to finally align the mortgage industry with consumer interests,” said UpEquity Co-Founder and CEO Tim Herman. “This funding is validation that consumers, real estate agents and venture investors understand the power of removing friction from the homebuying process, not only for personal advancement, but to attain the American Dream.”

So far the company has expanded its operations from Texas into Colorado, Florida and California, where it has originated $100 million in mortgages in 2020.

“As real estate continues to evolve in the face of limited supply and tight competition, UpEquity is at the helm of PropTech’s growing capabilities,” said Thomas Ball, managing director at Next Coast Ventures. “Most innovation has focused on the front end, but until now, nobody has expedited what happens after the borrower submits an application. UpEquity has the team, talent and technology to not only succeed, but to disrupt and emerge as the leader in the mortgage lending marketplace.”

 

Calling Belfast VCs: Be featured in The Great TechCrunch Survey of European VC

TechCrunch is embarking on a major project to survey the venture capital investors of Europe, and their cities.

Our <a href=”https://forms.gle/k4Ji2Ch7zdrn7o2p6”>survey of VCs in Belfast and Northern Ireland will capture how things are faring, and what changes are being wrought amongst investors by the coronavirus pandemic.

We’d like to know how Northern Ireland’s startup scene is evolving, how the tech sector is being impacted by COVID-19, and, generally, how your thinking will evolve from here.

Our survey will only be about investors, and only the contributions of VC investors will be included. More than one partner is welcome to fill out the survey. (Please note, if you have filled the survey out already, there is no need to do it again).

The shortlist of questions will require only brief responses, but the more you can add, the better.

You can fill out the survey here.

Obviously, investors who contribute will be featured in the final surveys, with links to their companies and profiles.

What kinds of things do we want to know? Questions include: Which trends are you most excited by? What startup do you wish someone would create? Where are the overlooked opportunities? What are you looking for in your next investment, in general? How is your local ecosystem going? And how has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy?

This survey is part of a broader series of surveys we’re doing to help founders find the right investors.

https://techcrunch.com/extra-crunch/investor-surveys/

For example, here is the recent survey of London.

You are not in Northern Ireland, but would like to take part? That’s fine! Any European VC investor can STILL fill out the survey, as we probably will be putting a call out to you next anyway! And we will use the data for future surveys on vertical topics.

The survey is covering almost every city and country on in the Union for the Mediterranean, so just look for your country and city on the survey and please participate (if you’re a venture capital investor).

Thank you for participating. If you have questions you can email [email protected]

(Please note: Filling out the survey is not a guarantee of inclusion in the final published piece).

SEC issues statement on past week’s turbulent market activity prompted by Reddit-fueled GameStop run

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has issued an official statement on the tumult of the past week in the public stock market. It’s a relatively brief statement, and doesn’t mention any of the key players by name (aka GameStop, Reddit, Robinhood and others), but it does say acknowledge that “extreme stock price volatility has the potential to expose investors to rapid and severe losses” which could “undermine market confidence,” and basically says the Commission is watching closely to ensure that it doesn’t.

The SEC statement does specify that it believes the “core market infrastructure” remains intact despite the heavy trading volumes of the past week, which were prompted primarily by activity organized by retail investors acting in concert through organization on r/WallStreetBets, a subreddit dedicated to day trading. These retail investors resolved to collectively purchase and hold GME stocks (and subsequently, shares in other companies like movie theater chain AMC) in a bid to sweat out hedge funds with significant short positions in the same.

The ensuing high volume of trading activity from individual retail investors led to various actions from platforms that provide free trading to these individuals, including Robinhood, Webull, Public and M1. Robinhood initially cited “protecting” its users as the reason for limits imposed, but later revealed that a lack of funding to cover trade clearances likely caused the temporary measures, since it tapped $500 million to $600 million in credit facility and raised $1 billion in funding overnight.

The SEC’s statement includes a callout that seems specifically directed at entities like Robinhood, and it’s fair to interpret it as a warning:

In addition, we will act to protect retail investors when the facts demonstrate abusive or manipulative trading activity that is prohibited by the federal securities laws. Market participants should be careful to avoid such activity. Likewise, issuers must ensure compliance with the federal securities laws for any contemplated offers or sales of their own securities.

Robinhood has already had run-ins with the financial regulator for unrelated business practices. Meanwhile, lawmakers from both the House and the Senate, as well as NY AG Letitia James have all expressed their intent to review the event and all surrounding activities, which likely involves the role trading platforms like Robinhood played in the week’s events.

Robinhood raises $1B after trading halts to keep its platform running

After a turbulent week for the stock market and halts to the trading of certain speculative securities including GameStop (GME) and AMC, consumer investing app Robinhood has raised new capital. The new funds total more than $1 billion, with the company telling TechCrunch that they were raised from its existing investor base.

The New York Times reports that the company raised the new equity capital after tapping its credit lines for $500 to $600 million; the company did not answer a question from TechCrunch regarding its credit lines.

The reported drawdown matches reporting from yesterday indicating that Robinhood had accessed nine-figures of capital to ensure it had enough funds on hand to meet regulatory minimums and other requirements related to its users’ trading activity.

Individual retail investors, along with institutional capital, have attacked short positions in some stocks in recent weeks, leading to a tug-of-war between bullish investors and bearish wagers; the resulting tumult led to surging volume for volatile stocks, leading to Robinhood needing more capital to keep its gears turning.

In a post discussing its decision yesterday to restrict trading on select securities, Robinhood wrote that it has “many financial requirements, including SEC net capital obligations and clearinghouse deposits,” adding that “some of these requirements fluctuate based on volatility in the markets and can be substantial in the current environment.”

The unicorn consumer fintech company halted trading in stocks like GameStop that had become the center of the trading storm yesterday, leading to frenetic accusations from incensed users that something nefarious was afoot. Later in the day the clearing house entity powering trading for other consumer trading services also halted service for a similar set of stocks.

Robinhood told users that it would allow trading to begin in some fashion today in shares it had previously restricted.

It does not appear that the current trading scrap will abate soon. Shares of GameStop, the most famous so-called “meme stock” in the current trading war, is up just under 94% this morning in pre-market trading, implying that many investors are willing to continue pushing its value higher in hopes of breaking short bets laid by other investors.

One result of the current climate is a boom in demand for trading apps. Today on the US iOS App Store, Robinhood is ranked first; Webull, a rival service is second; Reddit, a hub for trading gossip mostly via r/WallStreetBets is third; Coinbase a popular crypto trading service is fourth in line. Square’s Cash App, which allows for share purchases is ranked seventh, Fidelity’s iOS app comes in tenth place, and TD Ameritrade is 16th. Finally, E*Trade’s own app is ranked 18th. That’s a good showing for fintech, both startup and incumbent alike.

No one knows what comes next, how the trades play out, and if the present-day surge in retail interesting in stock trading will persist. What does seem clear, however, is that today is going to be very silly.

The somewhat boring reason it appears that Robinhood yanked trading on some securities

After enduring a day’s worth of taking a beating across social media, government, and the various app stores of the mobile world, Robinhood took to its own blog and CEO’s Twitter account to explain why it had halted trading of some stocks earlier today.

That Robinhood had restricted trading in a number of securities was bombshell news after the consumer trading platform had become synonymous with not only a rise in retail investing, but also a risky wager by some individual investors to push shares of heavily-shorted companies, including GameStop, AMC and others higher. Speculation that Robinhood was limiting the trading ability of those users at the behest of, pick your poison, Citadel, the US government, hedge funds, Janet Yellen, or others, ran rampant.

But none of it was true – at least according to Robinhood’s telling. In its post, Robinhood wrote that (emphasis TechCrunch):

[a]mid this week’s extraordinary circumstances in the market, we made a tough decision today to temporarily limit buying for certain securities. As a brokerage firm, we have many financial requirements, including SEC net capital obligations and clearinghouse deposits. Some of these requirements fluctuate based on volatility in the markets and can be substantial in the current environment. These requirements exist to protect investors and the markets and we take our responsibilities to comply with them seriously, including through the measures we have taken today.

That reads like Robinhood ran low on capital and had to make some hard decisions, quickly. The securities its users wanted to trade likely generated the highest capital obligations given how volatile they proved and how long it takes for trades to settle, so Robinhood had to shut off some trades to stay on the right side of its capital needs. (Not great, not terrible?)

Reporting from Bloomberg indicates that Robinhood “tapped at least several hundred million dollars” from credit lines today makes sense in this context. As does the unicorn’s decision to allow for some trading of the afore-limited securities in the near future (“starting tomorrow, we plan to allow limited buys of these securities,” the company wrote); now reloaded with more capital, Robinhood can afford to let its users get back, somewhat, to business.

Of course Robinhood could have been more clear about all of this earlier in the day. Instead, unfairly or not, it became the face of theoretical corruption and other nefarious forces. (Here’s a tip, if your theory sounds like it could fit inside the Qanon orbit, try again?)

Nothing is settled. Congress has its hackles up. Other trading platforms had to suspend trading in GameStop and other stocks for a spell as well. Social media is pissed. Some Robinhood users were forced to liquidate positions. And somehow GameStop closed the day worth more than $196 per share. And after-hours it is up $72.40, or 37.40% to $266 per share.

Who knows what comes next. But grains of salt, please, as we continue this bizarre adventure.

Robert Downey Jr. is launching a new ‘rolling’ venture fund to back sustainability startups

A little less than two years ago, when the actor, producer, and investor Robert Downey Jr. unveiled his new, sustainability focused initiative called the FootPrint Coalition at Amazon’s re:MARS conference it was little more than a static website and a subscription prompt.

Jump cut to today, and the firm now has five portfolio companies, a non-profit initiative, and is launching a rolling venture fund, Footprint Coalition Ventures, at the World Economic Forum’s Digital Davos event.

With the new rolling fund, managed through AngelList, Downey Jr.’s initiative sits the intersection of two of the biggest ideas reshaping the world economy — the democratization of access to capital and investment vehicles and the $10 trillion opportunity to decarbonize global industry.

It’s another arrow in the quiver for an institution that aims to combine storytelling, investing, and non-profit commitments to combat the world’s climate crisis.

Rolling funds and the revolution in finance

There’s a revolution happening in finance right now, whether it’s the rise of the Redittors trying to avenge the malfeasance of short-sellers and big institutional investors that’s happening through investments in stocks like Blockbuster, Nokia, Gamestop and AMC, or the new crowdfunding sources and rolling funds that are allowing regular investors to finance early stage companies, things on Wall Street are definitely changing.

And while the public market gambles are undoubtably minting some new millionaires, opening up access to interesting startup investments is a thesis that’s a stark contrast to the cynicism of day-trading gambles.

Both could leave investors with less than zero in some cases, but with rolling funds or crowdfunding, there’s a real opportunity to build something rather than just sticking it to the man.

Unlike traditional venture funds, rolling funds raise new capital commitments on a quarterly basis and invest as they go, hence the “rolling”. Investors come on for a minimum one-year commitment, and invest at a quarterly cadence. In Downey Jr.’s fund that commitment amounts to $5,000 per quarter for up to 2,000 qualified investors (and a smaller number of accredited ones), according to a person with knowledge of the firm’s plans.

“The idea of opening [the fund] to real people, rather than the ivory tower of the institutional bigwigs… It’s a little bit more slamdance than Sundance [and] I kind of dig it,” said Downey Jr.

A guide to recognizing FootPrint Coalition Ventures

FootPrint Coalition Ventures will be split between early and late stage investment funds and will be looking to make six investments per year in early stage companies and four later stage deals.

Helping Downey Jr. manage the operations are investors like Jonathan Schulthof, who previously founded LOOM Media, which leverages smart urban infrastructure for advertising, founded Motivate International, which manages bike sharing services in cities across the U.S., and served as a managing partner for Global Technology Investments. Schulthof is joined by Steve Levin, who co-founded Team Downey, Downey Jr.’s media production company and Downey Ventures, which invests in media and technology companies. 

The firm already has four companies in its portfolio through investments it made using the founders’ own capital. And while those investments were all under $1 million, the firm expects that the size of its commitments will grow as it raises additional cash. Footprint Coalition has also maintained pro-rata investment rights so that it can increase the size of its stake in businesses over time. And the investments it made to date were sized in anticipation of potential for follow-ons at much higher valuations.

A venture fund inside of a coalition

The initiative that Downey Jr. hopes to build is more than just an investment arm. Both he and his co-founders see the investment side as a single piece of a broader platform that leverages the massive social following Downey Jr. has created and the storytelling skills he and his team have mastered through decades spent working in the movie business.

That broader team includes Rachel Kropa, the former head of the CAA Foundation, who will lead scientific and philanthropic efforts and serve as the fund’s Impact Advisor and liaison to the scientific and research communities, according to a statement.

Rachel Kropa, former head of the CAA Foundation who joined Footprint Coalition to lead scientific and philanthropic efforts last year, will serve as the fund’s Impact Advisor and liaison to the scientific and research communities.

“The idea that the content that we made can be related back to the individual is very powerful,” said Kropa. “This problem is so intractable and interconnected across the world. It does matter that the fish that you eat are made using a sustainable feed.”

Kropa is referring to a piece that the FootPrint Coalition put out around sustainable aquaculture tied to the group’s recent investment in Ÿnsect, a company that makes protein from crickets for use in animal feed and human food.

“Our content around Cellular Agriculture, exemplifies the type of content we can create in the course of taking a deep dive into a particular industry. Though we have not (yet) invested in the space, we do believe there are interesting stories to tell,” said one person who works with the company.

That media is additive to activate the group’s audience, and is not something that it charges for — or considers part of its investment valuation. “We’ve been creating edited video segments with Robert doing voice over and overlaying animation all of which we’ve been posting to social. We do this for free to the companies, and we don’t charge / strong-arm / cajole for warrants, advisor shares, or the like in return,” the person said.

Weird science and sustainability

While Ÿnsect is one example of a company that the FootPrint Coalition has backed that’s doing something which may be a little outside of the purview of most of Downey Jr.’s following, other businesses like the bamboo toilet paper company, Cloud Paper, and the new investment in the sustainability focused financial services company, Aspiration, have definite direct consumer ties.

That balance is something that Schulthof said the firm was looking for as it pursues not just environmental and sustainability returns, but, more concretely, profit.

“We look at things that are meaningful and impactful [and] I get to be purely capitalist. The question is this a good opportunity is something that has to do with its margins, its scale, its risk profile, the people involved and fundamentally what are the terms… do we think the company will deliver value to investors,” said Schulthof. “We’re looking for returns.”

The opportunity for returns is enormous. As the group noted, the ESG sector – funds that focus on the Environmental, Social and Governance issues – continues to grow rapidly Part of the broader stakeholder capitalism movement, impact investing funds have topped $250 billion, and sustainability assets have doubled in value over the past three years.

“We see two powerful trends working together to support the environment. First, engaging content and media distribution enable us to create a passionate community from Robert’s 100 million followers and to use that audience to access great investments. Second, a turnkey technology platform now enables us to manage a broad set of individual investors,” said Schulthof in a statement. “Venture funds traditionally have high minimums that exclude only the wealthiest individuals, or endowments and foundations. With much lower minimums and shorter investment periods, we can now offer access to these same companies to a much broader group. When these investors further ignite our passionate audience, we hope to set a positive feedback loop in motion with environmental technologies as the ultimate beneficiary.”

 

Charlie launches a mobile app that ‘gamifies’ getting out of debt

Charlie, a personal finance app that began as a chatbot, is relaunching today with a revamped experience focused on the larger goal of helping everyday Americans get out of debt. To do so, Charlie presents users with a full picture of their current debt and how long it will take them to pay it off. Users then connect their bank account to Charlie for personalized assistance in reducing their bills. It also “gamifies” saving money to make the process of setting money aside for paying down debt more fun.

According to Charlie CEO Ilian Georgiev, the idea to turn saving into more of game arose from his prior experience in the mobile gaming industry. At a company called Pocket Gems, he helped scale apps that generated millions of dollars in revenue growth from across millions of users.

Image Credits: Charlie; CEO and co-founder Ilian Georgiev

“A really well-designed mobile game gets people to obsessively manage a virtual economy,” he explains. “And what I was curious about was how do we get people to do better in the real-world economy by using the same kind of tools?”

To help on that front, Charlie’s team includes people with backgrounds in not only computer science and engineering, but also in psychology. Using similar psychological tricks as found in gaming — rules, progress bars and reward mechanisms — the app helps nudge its users towards saving.

The original version of the Charlie app, launched in 2016, worked a little differently, however. It would analyze transaction data to look for areas where the user could improve their finances. It also worked over texting and through Facebook Messenger — platforms Charlie adopted with the idea that users needed a simpler way to connect with their finances.

“But the thing that we kept hearing over and over again, both qualitatively and quantitatively, is that the biggest concern that our users had is ‘how do I get out of debt? So then we said, instead of casting this really wide net…let’s laser focus on this one particular problem,” says Georgiev.

Today, the chatbot still lives on as a feature inside the new Charlie app, but it’s not the core experience.

Image Credits: Charlie

Instead, users begin by providing the app with information about their debt. Georgiev stresses that many Americans often know their debt down to the penny — whether that’s how much they have left on student loans, how much left on their car, how much credit card debt they have, and so on.

The app then calculates how long it would take to pay off this debt if you only made minimum payments. This number helps shock people into action, as they’ll often discover they’re going to be in debt for another 40 or 50 years.

“For most users, that’s an epiphany because they’ve never seen these numbers before, and the math required — even if you do it in Excel — the math required to figure that out is beyond most people,” Georgiev says.

The app then encourages users to learn how they can reduce the time it would take them to get out of debt by paying more than the minimums. By clicking a button, they can visualize the what happens if you pay, for example, $20 or $50 more per month.

The final step is to help users find that extra cash. In part, this may come from savings the app locates on users’ behalf. But it also comes from the money-saving “game.”

Charlie helps users create autosave rules which, when applied, auto-transfer money from the user’s connected bank account to Charlie’s digital wallet (an account held at partner bank, Evolve). These can be fun rules or even sort of ridiculous ones. For example, you could create “Guilty Pleasures” rules where Charlie will put away 10% every time you eat McDonalds, or it could save $1 for you every time a contestant on “The Bachelor” says they’re “here for the right reasons.”

Image Credits: Charlie

As those rules apply, money is saved and a little progress bar fills. The app rewards you with rainbow confetti as you achieve, also similar to some mobile gaming experiences.

At the end of the month, the user can take that saved money to make a larger payment towards their debt. Currently, Charlie doesn’t manage the bill pay aspects itself — which is a limitation. You have to transfer the funds back to your bank. But a bill pay feature is due to arrive in a couple’ months time, we’re told.

Later this year, Charlie plans to offer debt refinancing services to users. In this case, the team believes they can give the users lower interest rates because Charlie users will have proven, through their use of the app, that they’re lower risk.

Further down the road, Charlie aims to move more into neobank territory by issuing a debit card to users that works with users’ Charlie account. To differentiate from the growing number of neobanks, Charlie will continue to focus on paying down debt and savings.

Georgiev notes that the app’s business model is not built around user data collection, however. Data that’s ingested is sanitized and encrypted, and the app has a strict privacy policy. Plus, Charlie mainly helps people save money, but those funds are actually stored with a partner bank, not in Charlie itself. And because it’s involved in the act of moving money, it has to adhere to regulations around security and fraud prevention.

Today, Charlie charges a $4.99 per month subscription, which the company aims to make up for by helping people reduce their larger debt loads more quickly. However, even that small amount could give money-sensitive users pause, despite Charlie’s perks and successes.

To date, Charlie has registered a half million users for its older chatbot experience. It hopes to now grow that figure with its new tools.

The app is available on iOS and Android.