$75M weed giant Caliva ditches Eaze, launches delivery

It’s a brutal time for marijuana startups. I’m hearing some are raising at one-fifth of their 2019 valuation amid rampant competition, tall taxes and slow legalization. The struggles for marijuana’s best-known startup, delivery service Eaze, continue as today it’s losing one of its top partners: $75 million-funded weed brand empire Caliva has dropped Eaze in favor of launching its own delivery system.

By partnering with Hypur banking to solve the marijuana payments legality issue, Caliva will be able to accept contactless mobile payments, unlike Eaze, which usually requires customers to pay in cash. Caliva buyers won’t have to worry about trips to the ATM, especially now during COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, which the startup expects will boost their average order volume. Combined with verticalizing delivery in-house, plus its retail and wholesale operations, Caliva hopes it can grow its margins and survive this long winter for weed startups.

“Our mission at Caliva has always been to provide safe and easy access to plant-based solutions for health, happiness and healing,” said Caliva CEO Dennis O’Malley. “Together with Hypur, we are proud to offer our customers safe, compliant and convenient cashless payment options to improve and modernize their purchasing experience.” It hasn’t been so easy for Eaze, though.

Back in January, we reported that Eaze was in trouble, having suffered unannounced layoffs and executive departures. It burned cash on billboards, and never launched the services of a startup it acquired. There were questions about data security, and weed brands dropped Eaze due to delayed payments. It was almost out of money and in danger of vaporizing. It luckily managed to secure a $15 million bridge round to keep it alive, plus a $20 million Series D in February just before COVID-19 hit the fan, though I dread to think of the terms of that funding.

The plan for Eaze was to verticalize, buying and developing brands that it could sell through its existing delivery service to up its margins. Now it’s seeing former partner Caliva do the reverse, launching a delivery service to sell its own Fun Uncle, Deli and Caliva brands, as well as distribute other vape, edible and flower brands like Dosist and Kiva. Its menu breadth to attract customers and in-house brands to drive profits could be a winning combo. After limited pilots in SoCal, Caliva delivery is launching in LA and the Bay Area.

Unfortunately, traditional payment processors usually refuse to work with marijuana companies for fear of legal repercussions. That’s why most delivery services can’t accept credit or debit cards, or do so through sketchy legal workarounds that have led payment providers to be sued. Others like CanPay only offer ACH transfers, while Square only works with CBD sellers. “We spent time researching and evaluating all platforms that accept cannabis payments in the U.S., and found that Hypur has the best security, compliance and consumer experience” O’Malley tells me.

Although 400-person Caliva is now trying to raise a Series B, it may experience tough headwinds with shelter-in-place orders in effect in states where marijuana is legal. Stiff taxes on marijuana have meanwhile helped the black market continue to thrive, as California’s $3.1 billion in legal 2019 sales were overshadowed by an estimated $8.7 billion in illegal sales. Faster delivery and simpler payments could help. But enthusiasm for the industry has dwindled following the initial flood of entrants sought to exploit the end of prohibition. Is the Green Rush over?

Mobile payments firms in India are now scrambling to make money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Search for a business model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tech giants should let startups defer cloud payments

Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are the landlords. Amidst the Coronavirus economic crisis, startups need a break from paying rent. They’re in a cash crunch. Revenue has stopped flowing in, capital markets like venture debt are hesitant, and startups and small-to-medium sized businessesf are at risk of either having to lay off huge numbers of employees and/or shut down.

Meanwhile, the tech giants are cash rich. Their success this decade means they’re able to weather the storm for a few months. Their customers cannot.

Cloud infrastructure costs area amongst many startups’ top expenses besides payroll. The option to pay these cloud bills later could save some from going out of business or axing huge parts of their staff. Both would hurt the tech industry, the economy, and the individuals laid off. But most worryingly for the giants, it could destroy their customer base.

The mass layoffs have already begun. Soon we’re sure to start hearing about sizable companies shutting down, upended by COVID-19. But there’s still an opportunity to stop a larger bloodbath from ensuing.

That’s why I have a proposal: cloud relief.

The platform giants should let startups and small businesses defer their cloud infrastructure payments for three to six months until they can pay them back in installments. Amazon AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, these companies’ additional infrastructure products, and other platform providers should let customers pause payment until the worst of the first wave of the COVID-19 economic disruption passes. Profitable SAAS providers like Salesforce could give customers an extension too.

There are plenty of altruistic reasons to do this. They have the resources to help businesses in need. We all need to support each other in these tough times. This could protect tons of families. Some of these startups are providing important services to the public and even discounting them, thereby ramping up their bills while decreasing revenue.

Then there are the PR reasons. After years of techlash and anti-trust scrutiny, here’s the chance for the giants to prove their size can be beneficial to the world. Recruiters could use it as a talking point. “We’re the company that helped save Silicon Valley.” There’s an explanation for them squirreling away so much cash: the rainy day has finally arrived.

But the capitalistic truth and the story they could sell to Wall Street is that it’s not good for our business if our customers go out of business. Look at what happened to infrastructure providers in the dotcom crash. When tons of startups vaporized, so did the profits for those selling them hosting and tools. Any government stimulus for businesses would be better spent by them paying employees than paying the cloud companies that aren’t in danger. Saving one future Netflix from shutting down could cover any short-term loss from helping 100 other businesses.

This isn’t a handout. These startups will still owe the money. They’d just be able to pay it a little later, spread out over their monthly bills for a year or so. Once mass shelter-in-place orders subside, businesses can operate at least a little closer to normal, and investors get less cautious, customers will have the cash they need to pay their dues. Plus interest if necessary.

Meanwhile, they’ll be locked in and loyal customers for the foreseeable future. Cloud vendors could gate the deferment to only customers that have been with them for X amount of months or that have already spent Y amount on the platform. The vendors could also offer the deferment on the condition that customers add a year or more to their existing contracts. Founders will remember who gave them the benefit of the doubt.

cloud ice cream cone imagine

Consider it a marketing expense. Platforms often offer discounts or free trials to new customers. Now it’s existing customers that need a reprieve. Instead of airport ads, the giants could spend the money ensuring they’ll still have plenty of developers building atop them by the end of 2020.

Beyond deferred payment, platforms could just push the due date on all outstanding bills to three or six months from now. Alternatively, they could offer a deep discount such as 50% off for three months if they didn’t want to deal with accruing debt and then servicing it. Customers with multi-year contracts could offered the opportunity to downgrade or renegotiate their contracts without penalties. Any of these might require giving sales quota forgiveness to their account executives.

It would likely be far too complicated and risky to accept equity in lieu of cash, a cut of revenue going forward, or to provide loans or credit lines to customers. The clearest and simplest solution is to let startups skip a few payments, then pay more every month later until they clear their debt. When asked for comment or about whether they’re considering payment deferment options, Microsoft declined, and Amazon and Google did not respond.

To be clear, administering payment deferment won’t be simple or free. It could require the giants to change their earnings guidance. Rewriting deals with significantly sized customers will take work on both ends, and there’s a chance of breach of contract disputes. Giants would face the threat of customers recklessly using cloud resources before shutting down or skipping town.

Most taxing would be determining and enforcing the criteria of who’s eligible. The vendors would need to lay out which customers are too big so they don’t accidentally give a cloud-intensive but healthy media company a deferment they don’t need. Businesses that get questionably excluded could make a stink in public. Executing on the plan will require staff when giants are stretched thin trying to handle logistics disruptions, misinformation, and accelerating work-from-home usage.

Still, this is the moment when the fortunate need to lend a hand to the vulnerable. Not a hand out, but a hand up. Companies with billions in cash in their coffers could save those struggling to pay salaries. All the fundraisers and info centers and hackathons are great, but this is how the tech giants can live up to their lofty mission statements.

We all live in the cloud now. Don’t evict us. #CloudRelief

Thanks to Falon Fatemi, Corey Quinn, Ilya Fushman, Jason Kim, Ilya Sukhar, and Michael Campbell for their ideas and feedback on this proposal

Plastiq raises $75M to help small businesses use credit cards more

When Eliot Buchanan tried to use his credit card to pay his Harvard tuition bill, the payment was rejected because the university said it doesn’t accept credit. Realizing the same problem exists for thousands of different transactions like board, rent and vendor payments, he launched Plastiq. Plastiq helps people use credit cards to pay, or get paid, for anything

Plastiq today announced that it has raised $75 million in venture capital in a Series D round led by B Capital Group. Kleiner Perkins, Khosla Ventures, Accomplice and Top Tier Capital Partners also participated in the round. The round brings the company’s total known venture capital raised to more than $140 million.

To use Plastiq, users enter their credit card information on Plastiq’s platform. In return, Plastiq will charge you a 2.5% fee and get your bills paid. While Plastiq was started with consumers in mind, SMBs have now accounted for 90% of the revenue, according to Buchanan. The new financing round will invest in building out features to give SMBs faster services around payments and processing. 

Plastiq provides a way for SMBs and consumers to pay their bills and make sure they have reliable cash flow. For example, restaurants sometimes have a drop in revenue due to seasonality or, as we’re experiencing now with COVID-19, pandemic lockdowns. Or tourism companies for cities that are struggling to attract visitors. Those companies still need cash flow, and using Plastiq’s service, they can use credit cards to pay suppliers even in an off season. 

There is no shortage of competition from other companies also trying to solve pain points in small-business cash flow. According to Buchanan, Plastiq’s biggest competitors are traditional lenders, as well as companies like Kabbage and Fundbox. Similar claims could be made about Brex, which offers a credit card for startups to access capital faster. 

Kabbage provides funding to SMBs through automated business loans. The SoftBank-backed company landed $200 million in a revolving credit line back in July, fresh off of landing strong partnerships with banks and giants like Alibaba to access more customers. Kabbage loans out roughly $2-3 billion to SMBs every year. 

Plastiq, according to its release, is also on track to make more than $2 billion in transactions. But unlike Kabagge, Plastiq doesn’t issue loans or credit, it just unlocks a payment opportunity.

“SMBs don’t need to be burdened with additional debt or additional loans,” Buchanan said. “So rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, let’s use a behavior they have already earned.” 

Buchanan would not disclose Plastiq’s current valuation or revenue, but he did say that it’s not too far away from $100 million in revenue run rate. The company’s revenue has grown 150% from 2018 to 2019. 

The company also noted that it has surpassed “well over 1 million users,” up 150% in unique new users from 2018 to 2019.

In terms of profitability, Buchanan said that “we could be profitable if we wanted to be,” noting that Plastiq’s revenue and margins could lead them toward profitability if they wanted to focus less on growth. But he added they don’t plan to “slow down” the growth engine any time soon — especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because the Series D round closed at the end of 2019, Buchanan said the pandemic did not impact the deal. However, the company had planned to time the announcement with tax season. Now, as small businesses struggle to secure capital and stay afloat due to lockdowns across the country, Plastiq’s new raise feels more fitting. 

“Our customers are more thankful for solutions like ours as traditional sources of lending are drying up and not as easy to access” Buchanan said. “Hopefully, we can measure how many businesses make it through this because of us.” 

The 140-person company is currently hiring across product and engineering roles.

Podium rolls out payments for its customer-focused local business SaaS service

Podium, a Utah-based SaaS company focused on small business customer interactions, added payments technology to its product suite today. The move accretes a new income stream to the company’s quickly growing annual recurring revenue (ARR).

While I tend to stay away from product news, Podium’s decision to add payment technology to its service hit a number of themes that we’ve recently explored, like the rise of payments technology players (Finix, for example) and how it is increasingly common to see fintech and finservices solutions find their way into new places.

And Podium is one of SaaS’s fastest growing companies. Cribbing from some prior reporting, Podium’s ARR grew reached roughly $30 million at the end of 2017. It expected to reach $60 million by the end of 2018, and had $100 million in its sights for 2019. Those figures, collected in November, are now decidedly out of date. But they illustrate how quickly Podium was growing before it added payments to its arsenal.

I wanted to dig into the news, so I emailed with Eric Rea, the company’s CEO. What follows is an email exchange (due to scheduling difficulties). We’ll chat after about what was said.

Context

TechCrunch: Did Podium build out its own payments tech or does it employ third-party tech like Finix?

Podium: Podium has a great relationship with Stripe, a fellow Y Combinator company, which was partnered with our own technology to make it work best for our customers. This was key in order to create a payment tool that actually works in the kinds of businesses we work with. [The] majority of businesses who operate from a physical location, from dentist offices and home services companies to larger retail stores, have very specific needs that haven’t been met by traditional card present or POS systems. As a result, many of them rely on mailing paper invoices or awkward conversations where someone gives their card info over the phone. Putting Podium’s platform technology alongside Stripe’s best-in-class processing tech was able to finally meet this need for the companies that create roughly a third of the US non-farming GDP.

TechCrunch: Does the majority of the economics (profit/margin) from the payments product accrue to the Podium client, or Podium itself?

Podium: The genius behind this product is just how immense the economic impact is for these companies. For many of them, they are able to create a whole new convenient way to serve their customers through conversational commerce, and in doing so, they are able to be more successful.

One of our major furniture retailers that participated in the beta of Payments told me about how there has been a completely new selling motion that has opened up for their stores through this product. One of their biggest leaks was when customers would come in and look at a couch or dresser, but didn’t know if dimensions would work in their home. Once they left, there was a steep drop off getting them back into the store to actually make the purchase.

Now, with Payments, they are able to give all the info to their customer, have them check it out in their home and then text them if it works or not. They can then use Payments to collect payment in the very same text conversation and the delivery crew can complete the purchase all in the same day without having the customer return to the store. So it’s not just shifting where they are processing their payments, but opening up new revenue that they would never have had before they started using Payments.

Then consider the ancient process that businesses are still using who invoice for services, like a dentist or a home services provider. Majority are still using mailed statements and invoices or phone conversations. Believe it or not, the expenses for these are immense. Not only that, but the turnaround and success rates are abysmal, meaning these businesses have to wait weeks to months in order to receive payment, if at all. With Payments, it is as quick as a seamless text.

In our beta, Payments tripled the conversion rates over invoices and reduced employee workload related to payment by 80%. In healthcare, for example, 40% of customers send payment within 48 hours. To get that same level through their legacy operations, it would take 14 days to get to that point. The economic impact on that speed and completion is astounding for these businesses.

On the processing, Podium sees the profit on the transaction cost.

TechCrunch: Does Podium anticipate that payments will provide material revenue over the next 18 months? 36?

Podium: Yes. We see this as being the second major phase of the Podium platform. We have been proud to have created one of the fastest growing SaaS companies in history through our existing products. We have 43,000 businesses currently using Podium, and one of the biggest things they have all been telling us is how much they need a tool like this. Just in our existing customer base and verticals, they are creating more than $100B in gross processing volume annually in payments that are better suited to be done through this tool.

TechCrunch: How long did it take to build out the tech?

Podium: This product actually took the longest of all of our products to develop, given the unique expectations and requirements it took on the technology side. This product has been about a year in the making. When it comes to the business of making money and us being the facilitator of that, we take it very seriously to ensure the tool is secure and stable.

TechCrunch: What percent of Podium customers are good candidates to use the tech?

Podium: Almost universal. We gave a lot of intention behind making this a tool that would work across market verticals so that our customers could provide a better experience for their customers and get paid faster at the same time.

TechCrunch: What is the fee and cost structure?

Podium: We charge a flat rate for processing, which is intentional to allow transparency and consistency in their fees.

So what?

It’s not a surprise that Podium is taking the economics of the payment processing (with Stripe doing well at the same time). This means that Podium’s business itself will grow thanks to its addition.

At the same time, the clients using Podium’s platform also do well. If the feature can assist as many companies as Podium expects, then it could help a host of small, local firms boost their sales by improving their respective close rates. Even merely faster payments could help smaller shops better manage their cash flow.

So this feels a bit like a win-win. And it goes to show that the addition of payments to other bits of tech is more than hype (Finix will like that). Instead, it feels like adding the ability for transactions to flow directly through one’s platform is going to rise in popularity. Podium is not the first to the trend, and it won’t be the last. But it is a company that could accelerate the trend thanks to its scale and, so far at least, success.

What we’d love to see, frankly, is an S-1 from Podium this year; that would allow us to better dissect its business. Now at least we’ll have one more thing to look for when we do get the document.

Checkout.com acquires payment optimization startup ProcessOut

Checkout.com, the quiet London-based payment platform, has acquired its first startup, ProcessOut. Checkout.com surprised everyone last year when it announced a gigantic $230 million Series A round. It turns out the payment processing boom is not over yet.

Checkout.com focuses on enterprise clients with customers all around the world. It provides a full-stack payment service, from accepting transactions, processing them and detecting fraud. It helps with reconciliation thanks to an API and a reporting hub.

The startup is particularly efficient when it comes to supporting multiple currencies and payment methods. You can accept payments in more than 150 currencies. Checkout.com supports debit and credit cards, Apple Pay and Google Pay, as well as local payment methods such as Klarna, iDEAL and Giropay, and e-wallets such as PayPal and Alipay.

ProcessOut is a French startup that realized e-commerce companies have been leaving money on the table by relying on a single payment provider. The company built a smart routing checkout module that works with dozens of payment providers.

When you enter your card number, ProcessOut can select the best payment provider when it comes to fees and acceptance rate. For instance, a local payment provider can be a lot cheaper than Stripe, but transactions get declined a lot more often. The startup can figure out whether a transaction will go through before selecting an obscure payment provider.

The company then shows you dashboards so you can visualize payment data in a single location. You can generate report and match transactions on your bank account with transactions on different payment providers.

That combination of data visualization and smart routing helped them score some big clients, such as Glovo, Veepee, Rakuten.fr and Dashlane. In 2019, ProcessOut tracked 10% of online transactions in France. Transactions representing $20 billion have been analyzed by ProcessOut over the past 12 months.

With today’s acquisition, ProcessOut’s team of 14 employees are joining Checkout.com’s team of 600 employees. Checkout.com isn’t disclosing the terms of the transaction. Checkout.com is getting a ton of insight on different payment providers. It can learn from ProcessOut’s technology to optimize its internal payment workflows, as well.

BharatPe raises $75M to help Indian merchants accept digital payments and secure working capital

BharatPe, a New Delhi-based startup that is enabling hundreds of thousands of merchants to accept digital payments for the first time and also providing them with access to working capital, has raised $75 million in a new financing round as it looks to scale its business in the nation.

The Series C round for the one-and-a-half-year-old startup was led by New York-headquartered hedge fund Coatue Management and existing investor Palo Alto-based fintech investor Ribbit Capital .

VC firm Amplo, and existing investors Steadview Capital and Insight Partners also participated in the round, which valued the startup at over $400 million. BharatPe has raised $140 million to date.

BharatPe operates an eponymous service to help offline merchants accept digital payments. Even as India has already emerged as the second largest internet market, with more than 500 million users, much of the country remains offline. Among those outside of the reach of the internet are merchants running small businesses, such as roadside tea stalls.

To make these merchants comfortable with accepting digital payments, BharatPe relies on QR codes that support government-backed UPI payments infrastructure. Ashneer Grover, co-founder and chief executive of BharatPe, said the startup will use much of the fresh capital to fund working capital for its merchant partners.

BharatPe, he said, has disbursed about $14 million “short-term” loans to over 20,000 merchants in the last seven months. New merchants can secure about $500 for a period of three months from BharatPe. As merchants spend more time on BharatPe, the firm increases the amount to about $2,000.

The startup has amassed over 3 million merchants in 30 Indian cities. It aims to more than double that number by March 2021.

The lending business is crucial to BharatPe. Payment apps make little to no money through making transactions on their platforms. Those processing UPI payments can not even charge a small commission to merchants. Additionally, access to working capital is a major challenge in developed markets such as India. According to a World Bank report, more than 2 billion people globally do not have access to working capital.

Scores of new and established players today are offering a range of solutions including lending to merchants. Earlier this month, Paytm, the largest fintech startup in India and which raised $1 billion late last year, introduced a stand that displays QR check-out codes that has a built-in calculator, and a USB charger with sound box that delivers confirmation message when a transaction has processed. The startup also unveiled a point-of-sale machine with built-in scanner and printer for merchants.

Fintech startups raised $34B in 2019

Financial services startups raised less money in 2019 than they did in 2018 as VC firms looked to back late stage firms and focused on developing markets, a new report has revealed.

According to research firm CB Insights’ annual report published this week, fintech startups across the world raised $33.9 billion* in total last year across 1,912 deals*, down from $40.8 billion they picked up by participating in 2,049 deals the year before.

It’s a comprehensive report, which we recommend you read in full here (your email is required to access it), but below are some of the key takeaways.

  • Early stage startups struggled to attract money: Per the report, financing for startups looking to close Seed or Series A dropped to a five-year low in 2019. On the flip side, money pouring into Series B or beyond startups was at record five-year high.

    Early-stage deals dropped to a 12-quarter low as deal share globally shifts to mid- and late-stages (CB Insights)

  • Emerging and frontier markets were at the centre stage of the most of the action: South America, Africa, Australia, and Southeast Asia all topped their annual highs last year.
  • Asia outpaced Europe in the second half of last year on both number of deals and bulk of capital raised. In Q3, European startups raised $1.6 billion through 95 deals, compared to $1.8 billion amassed by Asian startups across 157 deals. In Q4, a similar story was at play: European startups participated in 100 rounds to raise $1.2 billion, compared to $2.14 billion* raised by Asian startups across 125 deals*.
  • Emergence of 24 new fintech unicorns in 2019: 8 fintech startups including Next Insurance, Bight Health, Flywire, High Radius, Ripple, and Figure attained the unicorn status in Q4 2019, and 16 others made it to the list throughout the rest of the last year.

    The fintech market globally today has 67 unicorns as of earlier this month (CB Insights)

  • Insurtech sector, or startups such as Lemonade, Hippo, Next, Wefox, Bright Health that are offering insurance services, got a major boost last year. They raised 6.2 billion last year, up from $3.2 billion in 2018.
  • Startups building solutions such as invoicing and taxing services and payroll and payments solutions for small and medium businesses also received the nod of VCs. In the U.S. alone, where more than 140 startups are operating in the space, raised $4 billion. In many more markets, such startups are beginning to emerge. In India, for instance Open and NiYo are building neo-banks for small businesses and they both raised money last year.
  • Nearly 50% of all funding to fintech startups was concentrated in 83-mega rounds (those of size $100 million or above.): According to the research firm, 2019 was a record year for such rounds across the globe, except in Europe.

    2019 saw 83 mega-rounds totaling $17.2B, a record year in every market except Europe

  • Funding of Germany-based startups reached an annual high: 65 deals in 2019 resulted in $1.79 billion raise, compared to 56 deals and raise of $757 million in 2018, and 66 deals and $622 million raise in 2017.
  • Financial startups in Southeast Asia (SEA) raised $993 million across 124 rounds in 2019 in what was their best year.

*CB Insights report includes a $666 million financing round of Paytm . It was incorrectly reported by some news outlets and the $666 million raise was part of the $1 billion round the Indian startup had revealed weeks prior. We have adjusted the data accordingly.

Rippling starts billboard battle with Gusto

Remember when Zenefits imploded, and kicked out CEO Parker Conrad. Well, Conrad launched a new employee onboarding startup called Rippling, and now he’s going after another HR company called Gusto with a new billboard, “Outgrowing Gusto? Presto change-o.”

The problem is, Gusto got it taken down by issuing a cease & desist order to Rippling and the billboard operator Clear Channel Outdoor. That’s despite the law typically allowing comparative advertising as long as it’s accurate. Gusto sells HR, benefits, and payroll software, while Rippling does the same but adds in IT management to tie together an employee identity platform.

Rippling tells me that outgrowing Gusto is the top reasons customers say they’re switching to Rippling. Gusto’s customer stories page lists no customers larger than 61 customers, and Enlyft research says the company is most often used by 10 to 50 person staffs. “We were one of Gusto’s largest customers when we left the platform last year. They were very open about the fact that the product didn’t work for businesses of our size. We moved to Rippling last fall and have been extremely happy with it” says Compass Coffee co-founder Michael Haft.

That all suggests the Rippling ad’s claim is reasonable. But the C&D claims that “Gusto counts as customers multiple companies with 100 or more employees and does not state the businesses will ‘outgrow’ their platfrom at a certain size.”

In an email to staff provided to TechCrunch, Rippling CMO Matt Epstein wrote “We take legal claims seriously, but this one doesn’t pass the laugh test. As Gusto says all over their website, they focus on small businesses.”

So rather than taking Gusto to court or trying to change Clear Channel’s mind, Conrad and Rippling did something cheeky. They responded to the cease & desist order in Shakespeare-style iambic pentameter.

Our billboard struck a nerve, it seems. And so you phoned your legal teams,
who started shouting, “Cease!” “Desist!” and other threats too long to list.

Your brand is known for being chill. So this just seems like overkill.
But since you think we’ve been unfair, we’d really like to clear the air:

Rippling’s general counsel Vanessa Wu wrote the letter which goes on to claim that “When Gusto tried to scale itself, we saw what you took off the shelf. Your software fell a little short. You needed Workday for support”, asserting that Gusto’s own HR tool couldn’t handle its 1000-plus employees and needed to turn to a bigger enterprise vendor. The letter concludes with the implication that Gusto should drop the cease-and-desist, and instead compete on merit:

So Gusto, do not fear our sign. Our mission and our goals align.
Let’s keep this conflict dignified—and let the customers decide.

Rippling CMO Matt Epstein tells me that “While the folks across the street may find competition upsetting, customers win when companies push each other to do better. We hope our lighthearted poem gets this debate back down to earth, and we look forward to competing in the marketplace.”

Rippling might think this whole thing was slick or funny, but it comes off a bit lame and try-hard. These are far from 8 Mile-worthy battle rhymes. If it really wanted to let customers decide, it could have just accepted the C&D and moved on…or not run the billboard at all. It still has four others that don’t slam competitors running. That said, Gusto does look petty trying to block the billboard and hide that it’s unequipped to support massive teams.

We reached out to Gusto over the weekend and again today asking for comment, whether it will drop the C&D, if it’s trying to get Rippling’s bus ads dropped too, and if it does in fact use Workday internally.

Given Gusto has raised $516 million10X what Rippling has — you’d think it could just outspend Rippling on advertising or invest in building the enterprise HR tools so customers really couldn’t outgrow it. They’re both Y Combinator companies with Kleiner Perkins as a major investor (conflict of interest?), so perhaps they can still bury the hatchet.

At least they found a way to make the HR industry interesting for an afternoon.