After Shopify’s huge quarter, BigCommerce raises its IPO price range

When BigCommerce, the Texas-based Shopify competitor, first announced an IPO price range, the numbers looked a little light.

With a range of just $18 to $20 per share, it appeared that the firm was targeting a valuation of around $1.18 billion to $1.31 billion. Given that BigCommerce had revenue of “between $35.5 million and $35.8 million” in Q2 2020, up a little over 30% from the year-ago period (and better margins than Shopify) its implied revenue multiple that its IPO price range indicated felt low.

At the time, TechCrunch wrote that “BigCommerce feels cheap at its current multiple,” and that if you added “recent market exuberance for cloud shares that we’ve see in other IPOs … it feels even more underpriced.”

Those feelings have been borne out. Today, BigCommerce announced a new, higher IPO price range. The firm now intends to price its IPO between $21 and $23 per share. Let’s calculate its new valuation, compare that to its preliminary Q2 results to get new multiples for the impending e-commerce software IPO, and figure how its most recent investors are set to fare in its impending debut.

Pricing

By moving its pricing up from $18 to $20 to $21 to $23, BigCommerce boosted its IPO range by 16.7% at its lower end and 15% at the upper end. At its new prices BigCommerce is worth between $1.38 billion and $1.51 billion.

BigCommerce files to go public

As expected, BigCommerce has filed to go public. The Austin, Texas, based e-commerce company raised over $200 million while private. The company’s IPO filing lists a $100 million placeholder figure for its IPO raise, giving us directional indication that this IPO will be in the lower, and not upper, nine-figure range.

BigCommerce, similar to public market darling Shopify, provides e-commerce services to merchants. Given how enamored public investors are with its Canadian rival, the timing of BigCommerce’s debut is utterly unsurprising and is prima facie intelligent.

Of course, we’ll know more when it prices. Today, however, the timing appears fortuitous.

The numbers

BigCommerce is a SaaS business, meaning that it sells a digital service for a recurring payment. For more on how it derives revenue from customers, head here. For our purposes what matters is that public investors will classify it along with a very popular — today’s trading notwithstanding — market segment.

Starting with broad strokes, here’s how the company performed in 2019 compared to 2018, and Q1 2020 in contrast to Q1 2019:

  • In 2019, BigCommerce’s revenue grew to $112.1 million, a gain of around 22% from its 2018 result of $91.9 million.
  • In Q1 2020, BigCommerce’s revenue grew to $33.2 million, up around 30% from its Q1 2019 result of $25.6 million.

BigCommerce didn’t grow too quickly in 2019, but its Q1 2020 expansion pace is much better. BigCommerce will file an S-1/A with more information in Q2 2020, we expect; it can’t go public without sharing more about its recent financial performance.

If the company’s revenue growth acceleration continues in the most recent period — bearing in mind that e-commerce as a segment has proven attractive to many businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic — BigCommerce’s IPO timing would appear even more intelligent than it did at first blush. Investors love growth acceleration.

Moving from revenue growth to revenue quality, BigCommerce’s Q1 2020 gross margins came in at 77.5%, a solid SaaS result. In Q1 2019 its gross margin was 76.8%, a slightly worse figure. Still, improving gross margins are popular as they indicate that future cash flows will grow at a faster clip than revenues, all else held equal.

In 2018 BigCommerce lost $38.9 million on a GAAP basis. Its net loss expanded modestly to $42.6 million in 2020, a larger dollar figure in gross terms, but a slimmer percent of its yearly top line. You can read those results however you’d like. In Q1 2020, however, things got better, as the company’s GAAP net loss fell to $4 million from its year-ago Q1 result of $10.5 million.

The BigCommerce big commerce business is growing more slowly than I had anticipated, but its overall operational health is better than I expected.

A few other notes, before we tear deeper into its S-1 filing tomorrow morning. BigCommerce’s adjusted EBITDA, a metric that gives a distorted, partial view of a company’s profitability, improved along similar lines to its net income, falling from -$9.2 million in Q1 2019 to -$5.7 million in Q1 2020.

The company’s cash flow is, akin to its adjusted EBITDA, worse than its net loss figures would have you guess. BigCommerce’s operating activities consumed $10 million in Q1 2020, an improvement from its Q1 2019 operating cash burn of $11.1 million.

The company is further in debt than many SaaS companies, but not so far as to be a problem. BigCommerce’s long-term debt, net of its current portion, was just over $69 million at the end of Q1 2020. It’s not a nice figure, per se, but it is one small enough that a good IPO haul could sharply reduce while still providing good amounts of working capital for the business.

Investors listed in its IPO document include Revolution, General Catalyst, GGV Capital, and SoftBank.

Arm plans to spin off IoT businesses under Softbank banner, as it focuses on core chip design business

Arm today announced plans to spinoff its two IoT business, a move that would effectively transfer the divisions under the broader umbrella of Softbank Group core, which purchased the chip designer back in 2016. The move comes as Arm seeks to focus its efforts exclusively on the semiconductor IP business that has made the company a ubiquitous presence in the mobile world.

The transfer is pending addition review from the company’s board, along with standard regulatory reviews — though Arm says it expects the move to be completed before the end of September of this year. While it would effectively remove the IoT Platform and Treasure Data businesses from its brand, the company says it plans to continue to collaborate with the ISG (IoT Services Group) businesses.

“Arm believes there are great opportunities in the symbiotic growth of data and compute,” ARM CEO Simon Segars said in a release tied to the news. “SoftBank’s experience in managing fast-growing, early-stage businesses would enable ISG to maximize its value in capturing the data opportunity. Arm would be in a stronger position to innovate in our core IP roadmap and provide our partners with greater support to capture the expanding opportunities for compute solutions across a range of markets.”

Arm’s IoT business has seen quite a bit of success, with its technologies shipping on billions of devices and the planned goal of one trillion expected next decade. These days, however, it seems content to focus on servers, desktops and edge computing, in addition to mobile products.

The UK government to acquire satellite company OneWeb in deal funded in part by India’s Bharti Global

Distressed satellite constellation operator OneWeb, which had entered bankruptcy protection proceedings at the end of March, has completed a sale process, with a consortium led by the UK Government as the winner. The group, which includes funding from India’s Bharti Global – part of business magnate Sunil Mittal’s Bharti Enterprises – plan to pursue OneWeb’s plans of building out a broadband internets satellite network, while the UK would also like to potentially use the constellation for Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) services in order to replace the EU’s sat-nav resource, which the UK lost access to in January as a result of Brexit.

The deal involves both Bharti Global and the UK government putting up around $500 million each, respectively, with the UK taking a 20 percent equity stake in OneWeb, and Bharti supplying the business management and commercial operations for the satellite firm.

OneWeb, which has launched a total of 74 of its planned 650 satellite constellation to date, suffered lay-offs and the subsequent bankruptcy filing after an attempt to raise additional funding to support continued launches and operations fell through. That was reportedly due in large part to majority private investor SoftBank backing out of commitments to invest additional funds.

The BBC reports that while OneWeb plans to essentially scale back up its existing operations, including reversing lay-offs, should the deal pass regulatory scrutiny, there’s a possibility that down the road it could relocate some of its existing manufacturing capacity to the UK. Currently, OneWeb does its spacecraft manufacturing out of Florida in a partnership with Airbus.

OneWeb is a London-based company already, and its constellation can provide access to low latency, high-speed broadband via low Earth orbit small satellites, which could potentially be a great resource for connecting UK citizens to affordable, quality connections. The PNT navigation services extension would be an extension of OneWeb’s existing mission, but theoretically, it’s a relatively inexpensive way to leverage planned in-space assets to serve a second purpose.

Also, while the UK currently lacks its own native launch capabilities, the country is working towards developing a number of spaceports for both vertical and horizontal take-off – which could enable companies like Virgin Orbit, and other newcomers like Skyrora, to establish small-sat launch capabilities from UK soil, which would make maintaining and extending in-space assets like OneWeb’s constellation much more accessible as a domestic resource.

Insurtech unicorn Lemonade raises IPO range ahead of debut

Ahead of its expected IPO pricing later today, SoftBank -backed insurtech startup Lemonade has raised its expected price range. After initially targeting $23 to $26 per share in its debut, Lemonade now intends to sell its equity for $26 to $28 per share.


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The new range boosts Lemonade’s expected value, a boon for insurtech startups like Root, Kin, MetroMile, Hippo and others. Had Lemonade been forced to reduce its pricing, the valuations of its contemporaries could have come under pressure when they went to raise more capital. But with Lemonade noting that the market will bear a higher price for its equity, it’s a good day for startups looking to rebuild insurance products in a digital-first manner.

This morning, let’s work out the Lemonade’s new valuation range, compare it to the company’s final private valuation and figure out if we can understand why the stock market may support the company at its new price. After that, we’ll share a few notes from folks about the IPO and how they think it might go, just for fun.

Upward

Lemonade intends on selling 11 million shares as before, so the company is not targeting a larger bloc of shares to disburse. At its new price range, Lemonade will sell shares worth between $286 million and $308 million, a few dozen million more at the top end of its new range than it had anticipated with its first IPO pricing interval ($253 million and $286 million).

The company has two valuation ranges: one without the 1.65 million shares its underwriters may purchase at its IPO price if they choose, and one including those shares. Without the extra equity, Lemonade is aiming at a $1.43 billion to $1.54 billion valuation; including the extra equity, Lemonade is worth $1.47 billion to $1.58 billion.

Chinese online learning app Zuoyebang raises $750M

Zuoyebang, a Beijing-headquartered startup that runs an online learning app, said on Monday it has raised $750 million in a new financing round as investors demonstrate their continued trust in — and focus on — Asia’s booming edtech market.

U.S. investment firm Tiger Global and Hong Kong-based private equity firm FountainVest Partners led the six-year-old startup’s Series E financing round. Existing investors including SoftBank’s Vision Fund, Sequoia Capital China, Xiang He Capital, Qatar Investment Authority also participated in the round, which brings the startup’s to-date raise to $1.33 billion.

As we have previously noted in our coverage, Zuoyebang’s app helps students — ranging from kindergarten to 12th-grade — solve problems and understand complex concepts.

The app, which offers online courses and runs live lessons, also allows students to take a picture of a problem, upload it to the app, and get its solution. The startup claims it uses artificial intelligence to identify the question and its answer.

Zuoyebang has amassed 170 million monthly active users, about 50 million of whom use the service each day, the startup said in a post (in Chinese). More than 12 million of these users are paid subscribers, it said.

The announcement today further illustrates the opportunities investors are seeing in the online education sector in Asia. Last week, Indian edtech giant Byju’s announced it had received fresh funds from Mary Meeker’s fund, Bond.

SoftBank counts Zuoyebang among its 88 portfolio startups that have demonstrated growth in recent quarters. Zuoyebang was founded by Baidu in 2015. A year later the Chinese search giant spun off Zuoyebang into an independent startup.

Zuoyebang competes with a handful of startups in China, including Yuanfudao, which offers a similar service. In March, Yuanfudao said it had secured $1 billion in a financing round led by Tencent and Hillhouse Capital. The startup was valued at $7.8 billion at the time. Reuters reported earlier this month that Zuoyebang could be valued at $6.5 billion in the new financing round.

According to research firm iResearch, the online education market in China could be worth $81 billion in two years.

Google to offer loans to merchants in India

Google said on Thursday it plans to offer credit to millions of merchants in India through its Google Pay app starting later this year as the American technology group looks to help small businesses in the country steer through the pandemic and also find a business model for its mobile payments service.

The company said it is working with financial institutions to offer loans to merchants from within Google Pay for Business app. The Google Pay’s business app, which the Android giant launched late last year, has already amassed 3 million merchants, it said.

Google’s announcement today comes as part of its effort to share its broader initiatives for small and micro-businesses in India.

The company said Google My Business, an app it launched in India in the second half of 2017 to help mom and pop stores and other small merchants build online presence, has been used by more than 26 million businesses in the country to list themselves on Google search and Maps. India has about 60 million small and micro-sized businesses in the nation, according to government estimates.

“Every month we drive over 150 million direct connections between these businesses and customers including calls, online reservations and direction requests,” company executives said.

New Delhi ordered a nationwide lockdown in late March in a bid to contain the spread of Covid-19. The move forced most businesses to suspend their operations. In recent weeks, the Indian government has rushed to relax some of its restrictions and many stores have resumed their businesses.

Last year Google launched Spot feature in India that allows businesses to easily create their own branded commercial fronts that are accessible to customers through Google Pay app.

In May, Google introduced Nearby Stores as a Spot feature on Google Pay app that allowed local businesses in select part of the country get discovered by customers in their neighborhood. The company said it is expanding this offering across India starting today.

Thursday’s announcement also outlines the grip Google assumes on small businesses in India, and how its scale — and resources — could pose additional challenges for scores of local startups that are already attempting to serve businesses.

SoftBank -backed Paytm, Walmart’s PhonePe, and New Delhi-based BharatPe have in recent years onboarded millions of merchants and offer them a range of services including loans.

Paytm, which works with over 16 million merchants, earlier this year launched a range of gadgets, including a device that displays QR check-out codes that comes with a calculator and USB charger, a jukebox that provides voice confirmations of transactions and services to streamline inventory management for merchants.

For some of these players, Google’s increasingly growing interest in targeting merchants means that they will be facing off the search giant on two fronts. TechCrunch reported earlier this month that Google Pay had about 75 million transacting users in India, more than any of its competitors. But despite the scale, Google Pay, and most other payments services in India are struggling to find a business model for their services.

Facebook, Google’s global rival, has courted more than 1 million merchants in India on its WhatsApp’s business app. WhatsApp, which is the most popular app in India, is informally used by countless of additional merchants in the country.

Masayoshi Son resigns from board of Alibaba; defends SoftBank Group’s investment strategy

SoftBank Group founder Masayoshi Son said on Thursday he is leaving the board of Jack Ma’s Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group today, a month after Ma left the board of Son’s technology group.

Son said he sees the move as “graduating” from Alibaba Group’s board, his most successful investment to date, as he swiftly moved to defend the Japanese group’s investment strategy, which has been the subject of scrutiny and public mockery in recent quarters.

Son said his conglomerate’s holding has recovered to the pre-coronavirus outbreak levels. The firm has benefited from the rising value of Alibaba Group and its stake in Sprint, following the telecom operator’s merger with T-Mobile. Son said his firm has seen an internet rate of return (or IRR, a popular metric used by VC funds to demonstrate their performance) of 25%.

In a shareholder meeting today, he said he was worried that many people think that SoftBank is “finished” and are calling it “SoftPunku,” a colloquial used in Japan which means a broken thing. All combined, SoftBank’s shareholder value now stands at $218 billion, he said.

Son insisted that he was leaving the board of Alibaba Group, a position he has held since 2005, on good terms and that there hadn’t been any disagreements between him and Ma.

Son’s move follows Jack Ma, who co-founded Alibaba Group, leaving the board of SoftBank last month after assuming the position for 13 years. Son famously invested $20 million in Alibaba 20 years ago. Early this year, SoftBank still owned shares worth $100 billion in Alibaba.

A range of SoftBank’s recent investments has spooked the investment world. The firm, known for writing big checks, has publicly stated that its investment in ride-hailing giant Uber, office space manager WeWork, and a range of other startups has not provided the return it had hoped.

Several of these firms, including Oyo, a budget-lodging Indian startup, has moreover been hit hard by the pandemic.

Son, who has raised $20 billion by selling T-Mobile stake, said after factoring in other of his recent deals SoftBank had accumulated $35 billion or 80% of the total planned unloading of investments.

SoftBank-backed Lemonade files to go public

Lemonade, a heavily-backed startup that sells renters and homeowners insurance to consumers, filed to go public today. The company (backed by SoftBank, part of the Sequoia empire, General Catalyst and Tusk Venture Partners, among others) releasing its financial results helps shed light on the burgeoning insurtech market, which has attracted an ocean of capital in recent quarters.

TechCrunch covered a part of the insurtech world earlier this year, asking why insurance marketplaces were picking up so much investment, so quickly. Lemonade is different from insurance marketplaces in that it’s a full-service insurance provider.

Indeed, as its S-1 notes:

By leveraging technology, data, artificial intelligence, contemporary design, and behavioral economics, we believe we are making insurance more delightful, more affordable, more precise, and more socially impactful. To that end, we have built a vertically-integrated company with wholly-owned insurance carriers in the United States and Europe, and the full technology stack to power them.

Lemonade is pitching that it has technology to make insurance a better business and a better consumer product. It is tempting. Insurance is hardly anyone’s favorite product. If it could suck marginally less, that would be great. Doubly so if Lemonade could generate material net income in the process.

Looking at the numbers, the pitch is a bit forward-looking.

Parsing Lemonade’s IPO filing, the business shows that while it can generate some margin from insurance, it is still miles from being able to pay for its own operation. The filing reminds us more of Vroom’s similarly unprofitable offering than Zoom’s surprisingly profitable debut.

The numbers

Lemonade is targeting a $100 million IPO according to its filings. That number is imprecise, but directionally useful. What the placeholder target tells us is that the company is more likely to try to raise $100 million to $300 million in its debut than it is to take aim at $500 million or more.

So, the company, backed by $480 million in private capital to date, is looking to extend its fundraising record, not double it in a single go. What has all that money bought Lemonade? Improving results, if stiff losses. Let’s parse some charts that the company has proffered and then chew on its raw results.

First, this trio of bar charts that are up top in the filing:

Gross written premiums (GWP) is the total amount of revenue expected by Lemonade for its sold insurance products, notably discounting commissions and some other costs. As you’d expect, the numbers are going up over time, implying that Lemonade was effective in selling more insurance products as it aged.

The second chart details how much money the company is losing on a net basis compared to the firm’s gross written premium result. This is a faff metric, and one that isn’t too encouraging; Lemonade’s GWP more than doubled from 2018 to 2019, but the firm’s net losses per dollar of GWP fell far less. This implies less-than-stellar operating leverage.

The final chart is more encouraging. In 2017 the company was paying out far more in claims than it took in from premiums. By 2019 it was generating margin from its insurance products. The trend line here is also nice, in that the 2018 to 2019 improvement was steep.

And then there’s this one:

This looks good. That said, improving adjusted EBITDA margins that remain starkly negative as something to be proud of is very Unicorn Era. But 2020 is alive with animal spirits, so perhaps this will engender some public investor adulation.

Regardless, let’s dig into the numbers. Here’s the main income statement:

Some definitions. What is net earned premium? According to the company it is “the earned portion of our gross written premium, less the earned portion that is ceded to third-party reinsurers under our reinsurance agreements.” Like pre-sold software revenue, premium revenue is “earned pro rata over the term of the policy, which is generally.” Cool.

Net investment income is “interest earned from fixed maturity securities, short term securities and other investments.” Cool.

The two numbers are the company’s only material revenue sources. And they sum to lots of growth. From $22.5 million in 2018 to $67.3 million in 2019, a gain of 199.1%. More recently, the company’s Q1 results saw its revenue grow from $11.0 million in 2019 to $26.2 million in 2020, a gain of 138.2%. A slower pace, yes, but from a higher base and more than large enough for the company to flaunt growth to a yield-starved public market.

Now, let’s talk losses.

Deficits

We’ll talk margins a little later, as that bit is annoying. What matters is that Lemonade’s cost structure is suffocating when compared to its ability to pay for it. Net losses rose from $52.9 million in 2018 to $108.5 million in 2019. More recently, a Q1 2019 net loss of $21.6 million was smashed in the first quarter of 2020 when the firm lost $36.5 million.

Indeed, Lemonade only appears to lose more money as time goes along. So how is the company turning so much growth into such huge losses? Here’s a hint:

This is messy, but we can get through it. First, see how operating revenue is different than the GAAP revenue metrics we saw before? That’s because it’s a non-GAAP (adjusted) number that means the “total revenue before adding net investment income and before subtracting earned premium ceded to reinsurers.” Cool.

That curiosity aside, what we really care about is the company’s adjusted gross profit. This metric, defined as “total revenue excluding net investment income and less other costs of sales, including net loss and loss adjustment expense, the amortization of deferred acquisition costs and credit card processing fees,” which means gross profit but super not really, is irksome. Given that Lemonade is already adjusting it, it’s notable that the company only managed to generate $5.4 million of the stuff in Q1.

Recall that the company had GAAP revenue of $26.2 million in that three-month period. So, if we adjust the firm’s gross profit, the company winds up with a gross margin of just a hair over 20%.

So what? The company is spending heavily — $19.2 million in Q1 alone — on sales and marketing to generate relatively low-margin revenue. Or more precisely, Lemonade generated enough adjusted gross profit in Q1 2020 to cover 28% of its GAAP sales and marketing spend for the same period. Figure that one out.

Anyway, the company raised $300 million from SoftBank last year, so it has lots of cash. “$304.0 million in cash and short-term investments,” as of the end of Q1 2020, in fact. So, the company can sustain its Q1 2020 operating cash burn ($19.4 million) for a long time. Why go public then?

Because like we wrote this morning (Extra Crunch subscription required), Vroom showed that the IPO market is open for growth shares and SoftBank needs a win. Let’s see what investors think, but this IPO feels like it’s timed to get out while the getting is good. Who can get mad at that?

Google and Walmart’s PhonePe establish dominance in India’s mobile payments market as WhatsApp Pay struggles to launch

In India, it’s Google and Walmart-owned PhonePe that are racing neck-and-neck to be the top player in the mobile payments market, while Facebook remains mired in a regulatory maze for WhatsApp Pay’s rollout.

In May, more than 75 million users transacted on Google Pay app, ahead of Walmart -owned PhonePe’s 60 million users, and SoftBank -backed Paytm’s 30 million users, people familiar with the companies’ figures told TechCrunch.

Google still lags Paytm’s reach with merchants, but the Android -maker has maintained its overall lead in recent months despite every player losing momentum due to one of the most stringent lockdowns globally in place in India. Google declined to comment.

Paytm, once the dominant player in India, has been struggling to sustain its user base for nearly two years. The company had about 60 million transacting users in January last year, said people familiar with the matter.

Data sets consider transacting users to be those who have made at least one payment through the app in a month. It’s a coveted metric and is different from the much more popular monthly active users, or MAU, that various firms use to share their performance. A portion of those labeled as monthly active users do not make any transaction on the app.

India’s homegrown payment firm, Paytm, has struggled to grow in recent years in part because of a mandate by India’s central bank to mobile wallet firms — the middlemen between users and banks — to perform know-your-client (KYC) verification of users, which created confusion among many, some of the people said. These woes come despite the firm’s fundraising success, which amounts to more than $3 billion.

In a statement, a Paytm spokesperson said, “When it comes to mobile wallets one has to remember the fact that Paytm was the company that set up the infrastructure to do KYC and has been able to complete over 100 million KYCs by physically meeting customers.”

Paytm has long benefited from integration with popular services such as Uber, and food delivery startups Swiggy and Zomato, but fewer than 10 million of Paytm’s monthly transacting users have relied on this feature in recent months.

Two executives, who like everyone else spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution, also said that Paytm resisted the idea of adopting Unified Payments Interface. That’s the nearly two-year-old payments infrastructure built and backed by a collation of banks in India that enables money to be sent directly between accounts at different banks and eliminates the need for a separate mobile wallet.

Paytm’s delays in adopting the standard left room for Google and PhonePe, another early adopter of UPI, to seize the opportunity.

Paytm, which adopted UPI a year after Google and PhonePe, refuted the characterization that it resisted joining UPI ecosystem.

“We are the company that cherishes innovation and technology that can transform the lives of millions. We understand the importance of financial technology and for this very reason, we have always been the champion and supporter of UPI. We, however, launched it on Paytm later than our peers because it took a little longer for us to get the approval to start UPI based services,“ a spokesperson said.

A sign for Paytm online payment method, operated by One97 Communications Ltd., is displayed at a street stall selling accessories in Bengaluru, India, on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Missing from the fray is Facebook, which counts India as its biggest market by user count. The company began talks with banks to enter India’s mobile payments market, estimated to reach $1 trillion by 2023 (according to Credit Suisse), through WhatsApp as early as 2017. WhatsApp is the most popular smartphone app in India with over 400 million users in the country.

Facebook launched WhatsApp Pay to a million users in the following year, but has been locked in a regulatory battle since to expand the payments service to the rest of its users. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said WhatsApp Pay would roll out nationwide by end of last year, but the firm is yet to secure all approvals — and new challenges keep cropping up. WhatsApp declined to comment.

PhonePe, which was conceived only a year before WhatsApp set eyes to India’s mobile payments, has consistently grown as it added several third-party services. These include leading food and grocery delivery services Swiggy and Grofers, ride-hailing giant Ola, ticketing and staying players Ixigo and Oyo Hotels, in a so-called super app strategy. In November, about 63 million users were active on PhonePe, 45 million of whom transacted through the app.

Karthik Raghupathy, the head of business at PhonePe, confirmed the company’s transacting users to TechCrunch.

Three factors contributed to the growth of PhonePe, he said in an interview. “The rise of smartphones and mobile data adoption in recent years; early adoption to UPI at a time when most mobile payments firms in India were betting on virtual mobile-wallet model; and taking an open-ecosystem approach,” he said.

“We opened our consumer base to all our merchant partners very early on. Our philosophy was that we would not enter categories such as online ticketing for movies and travel, and instead work with market leaders on those fronts,” he explained.

“We also went to the market with a completely open, interoperable QR code that enabled merchants and businesses to use just one QR code to accept payments from any app — not just ours. Prior to this, you would see a neighborhood store maintain several QR codes to support a number of payment apps. Over the years, our approach has become the industry norm,” he said, adding that PhonePe has been similarly open to other wallets and payments options as well.

But despite the growth and its open approach, PhonePe has still struggled to win the confidence of investors in recent quarters. Stoking investors’ fears is the lack of a clear business model for mobile payments firms in India.

PhonePe executives held talks to raise capital last year that would have valued it at $8 billion, but the negotiations fell apart. Similar talks early this year, which would have valued PhonePe at $3 billion, which hasn’t been previously reported, also fell apart, three people familiar with the matter said. Raghupathy and a PhonePe spokesperson declined to comment on the company’s fundraising plans.

For now, Walmart has agreed to continue to bankroll the payments app, which became part of the retail group with Flipkart acquisition in 2018.

As UPI gained inroads in the market, banks have done away with any promotional incentives to mobile payments players, one of their only revenue sources.

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 without a clear business model in India.

Coronavirus takes its toll on payments companies

The coronavirus pandemic that prompted New Delhi to order a nationwide lockdown in late March preceded a significant, but predictable, drop in mobile payments usage in the following weeks. But while Paytm continues to struggle in bouncing back, PhonePe and Google Pay have fully recovered as India eased some restrictions.

About 120 million UPI transactions occurred on Paytm in the month of May, down from 127 million in April and 186 million in March, according to data compiled by NPCI, the body that oversees UPI, and obtained by TechCrunch. (Paytm maintains a mobile wallet business, which contributes to its overall transacting users.)

Google Pay, which only supports UPI payments, facilitated 540 million transactions in May, up from 434 million in April and 515 million in March. PhonePe’s 454 million March figure slid to 368 million in April, but it turned the corner, with 460 million transactions last month. An NPCI spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

PhonePe and Google Pay together accounted for about 83% of all UPI transactions in India last month.

Industry executives working at rival firms said it would be a mistake to dismiss Paytm, the one-time leader of the mobile payments market in India.

Paytm has cut its marketing expenses and aggressively chased merchants in recent quarters. Earlier this year, it unveiled a range of gadgets, including a device that displays QR check-out codes that comes with a calculator and USB charger, a jukebox that provides voice confirmations of transactions and services to streamline inventory management for merchants.

Merchants who use these devices pay a recurring fee to Paytm, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, co-founder and chief executive of the firm told TechCrunch in an interview earlier this year. Paytm has also entered several businesses, such as movie and travel ticketing, lending, games and e-commerce, and set up a digital payments bank over the years.

“Everyone knows Paytm. Paytm is synonymous with digital payments in India. And outside, there’s a perceived notion that it’s truly the Alipay of India,” an executive at a rival firm said.