The end of Plaid-Visa, and Palantir’s growing startup mafia

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture-capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week we — Natasha and Danny and Alex and Grace — had a lot to get through, as the news volume in early 2021 has been rapid and serious. Sadly this means that some early-stage rounds missed the cut, though we did make sure to have some Series A material in the show.

So, what did the assembled crew get to? Here’s your cheat sheet:

  • As is Talkspace, the tele-therapy startup that you’ve heard of.
  • Then there was SoftBank, of course, which has its own SPAC in the market now, confirming earlier reports. Which makes perfect sense.

There are so many SPACs and bits of IPO news and funding rounds to pick through and cover that we’re already straining the time limits of the show to even cover half of the material. This week that meant that we excised a chunk of the show to a forthcoming Saturday episode that is focused on e-commerce.

So, we will talk to you again soon!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Madrona promotes Anu Sharma and Daniel Li as Partners

Fresh off the announcement of more than $500 million in new capital across two new funds, Seattle-based Madrona Venture Group has announced that they’re adding Anu Sharma and Daniel Li to the team’s list of Partners.

The firm, which in recent years has paid particularly close attention to enterprise software bets, invests heavily in the early-stage Pacific Northwest startup scene.

Both Li and Sharma are stepping into the Partner role after some time at the firm. Li has been with Madrona for five years while Sharma joined the team in 2020. Prior to joining Madrona, Sharma led product management teams at Amazon Web Services, worked as a software developer at Oracle and had a stint in VC as an associate at SoftBank China & India. Li previously worked at the Boston Consulting Group.

I got the chance to catch up with Li who notes that the promotion won’t necessarily mean a big shift in his day-to-day responsibilities — “At Madrona, you’re not promoted until you’re working in the next role anyway,” he says — but that he appreciates “how much trust the firm places in junior investors.”

Asked about leveling up his venture career during a time when public and private markets seem particularly flush with cash, Li acknowledges some looming challenges.

“On one hand, it’s just been an amazing five years to join venture capital because things have just been up and to the right with lots of things that work; it’s just a super exciting time,” Li says. “On the other hand, from a macro perspective, you know that there’s more capital flowing into VC as an asset class than ever before. And just from that pure macro perspective, you know that that means returns are going to be lower in the next 10 years as valuations are higher.”

Nevertheless, Li is plenty bullish on internet companies claiming larger swaths of the global GDP and hopes to invest specifically in “low code platforms, next-gen productivity, and online communities,” Madrona notes in their announcement, while Sharma plans to continue looking at to “distributed systems, data infrastructure, machine learning, and security.”

TechCrunch recently talked to Li and his Madrona colleague Hope Cochran about some of the top trends in social gaming and how investors were approaching new opportunities across the gaming industry.

Vision Fund backs Chinese fitness app Keep in $360 million round

As Chinese fitness class provider Keep continues to diversify its offerings to include Peloton-like bikes, health-conscious snacks among other things, it’s bringing in new investors to fund its ambitions.

On Monday, Keep said it has recently closed a Series F financing round of $360 million led by SoftBank Vision Fund. Hillhouse Capital and Coatue Management participated in the round, as well as existing investors GGV Capital, Tencent, 5Y Capital, Jeneration Capital and Bertelsmann Asia Investments.

The latest fundraise values the six-year-old startup at about $2 billion post-money, people with knowledge told TechCrunch. Keep said it currently has no plans to go public, a company spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Keep started out in 2014 by providing at-home workout videos and signed up 100 million users within three years. As of late, it has served over 300 million users, the company claims. It has over time fostered an ecosystem of fitness influencers who give live classes to students via videos, and now runs a team of course designers, streaming coaches and operational staff dedicated to its video streaming business.

The company said its main revenue driver is membership fees from the 10 million users who receive personalized services. It’s also expanding its consumer product line. Last year, for instance, the firm introduced an internet-connected stationary bike that comes with video instructions like Peloton . It’s also rolled out apparel, treadmills and smart wristbands.

The company launched foreign versions of its Keep app in 2018 as it took aim at the overseas home fitness market. It was posting diligently on Western social networks including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter up until the spring of 2019.

According to Keep, the purpose of the latest funding is to let it continue doing what it has focused on in recent years: improving services and products for users and serving fitness professionals against a backdrop of the Chinese government’s campaign for “national fitness.”

“We believe fitness has become an indispensable part of Chinese people’s everyday life as their income rises and health awareness grows,” said Eric Chen, managing partner at SoftBank Vision Fund .

 

MadeiraMadeira, Brazil’s answer to Wayfair and Ikea, is now worth over $1 billion

MadeiraMadeira, the Brazilian answer to Wayfair or Ikea, is now worth $1 billion after raising $190 million in late stage financing from investors led by SoftBank’s Latin American investment fund and the Brazilian public and private investment firm, Dynamo.

An online marketplace specializing in home products, MadeiraMadeira offers roughly 300,000 products so customers can build furnish, renovate and decorate their homes.

Founded in 2009 by Daniel Scandian, Marcelo Scandian and Robson Privado, the company has seen huge tailwinds come from the shift to online shopping in Brazil as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

With stores closed, online shopping in Brazil surged. As Daniel Scandian noted, before the pandemic ecommerce penetration in Brazil was at roughly 7%, that number ballooned to 17% at the height of the pandemic in Brazil and has now stabilized at around 10%.

Combining third party sales with private labeled goods and its own shipping and logistics facilities has meant that MadeiraMadeira can take the best practices from several online retailers and home furnishing stores, Scandian said.

There are more than 10,000 sellers on the MadeiraMadeira platform and roughly 2.5 million stock keeping units. In recent years the company has added showrooms to its mix of retail facilities, where customers can check out merchandise, but complete their orders online.

“That’s the way we can tackle the offline market with a digital mindset,” Scandian said. 

Money from the most recent financing will be used to invest in expanding its logistics capabilities with the addition of new warehouse facilities to expand on its existing ten locations. The company also intends to add same day delivery and the expansion of its private label services.

The new capital, likely the last round before a potential public offering, included previous investors like Flybridge and Monashees along with public-focused investment firms Velt, Brasil Capital and Lakewood.

Early investors like Monashees, Kaszek, Fundo Avila, Endeavour Catalyst and angel backers like Niraj Shah, the founder of Wayfair, and Build.com founder Christian Friedland were instrumental to MadeiraMadeira’s early success, Scandian said.

Based in Curitiba, MadeiraMadeira has over 1300 employees, with the majority of them focused on technology, logistics and product development.

“With this new investment, we are raising our commitment to MadeiraMadeira’s long-term value creation vision as the company consolidates its position as the leader in Latin America’s home goods market. Since our initial investment, MadeiraMadeira’s management team has delivered everything they’ve promised, and our faith in them continues to grow,” said Paulo Passoni, Managing Investment Partner to SoftBank Latin America fund.

SoftBank will reportedly file for a SPAC on Monday

SoftBank Investment Advisers may file as early as Monday to raise between $500 million and $600 million through an initial public offering of its first special purpose acquisition vehicle, reports Axios.

SoftBank Investment Advisers manages the two Vision Funds and may continue leaning into SPACs, with two more reportedly in the works.

The conglomerate first revealed its SPAC plans in October when SoftBank Investment Advisers chief executive officer Rajeev Misra said he was planning a SPAC while speaking at the Milken Institute Global Conference. An SPAC would give the Vision Fund another way of investing in private companies, and also allow the public to invest in SoftBank’s portfolio picks.

SPACs are blank-check companies created for the purpose of merging or acquiring other companies, and have gained popularity this year as an alternative to traditional stock market debuts.

While this would be SoftBank’s first SPAC, one of its portfolio companies, real-estate platform OpenDoor, recently went public through an SPAC. Another one of its investments, Indonesian e-commerce giant Tokopedia, is also considering going public through a SPAC backed by Richard Li and Peter Thiel, after putting its IPO plans because of the pandemic.

TechCrunch has contacted SoftBank Investment Advisers for comment.

Brazilian lending company Creditas raises $255 million as Latin America’s fintech explosion continues

Creditas, the Brazilian lending business, has raised $255 million in new financing as financial services startups across Latin America continue to attract massive amounts of cash.

The company’s credit portfolio has crossed 1 billion reals ($196.66 million) and the new round will value the company at $1.75 billion thanks to $570 million raised in outside financing over five rounds.

Creditas is the latest company to benefit from a boom in financial services startup investing across the region. As the year dawned, venture investments into fintech startups in Latin America had grown from $50 million in 2014 to top $2.1 billion in 2020 across 139 deals, according to a report from CB Insights.

Investors in the round include new investors like LGT Lightstone, Tarsadia Capital, Wellington Management, e.ventures and an affiliate of Advent International, Sunley House Capital. Previous investors including SoftBank Vision Fund 1, SoftBank Latin America DFund, VEF, Kaszek and Amadeus Capital Partners also returned to put more money into the company.

“Creditas is still in the early innings of penetrating the huge untapped secured lending market in Brazil and Mexico” says Paulo Passoni, managing partner of SoftBank Latam fund, in a statement.

The company’s growth is a testament both to the need for new lending products across Latin America and the perspicacity of investors like Kaszek Ventures, whose portfolio has included several massive wins from bets on startups tackling financial services in Latin America.

“The journey since our investment in the Series A has been absolutely extraordinary. The team has executed on its vision, and Creditas has evolved into an asset-light ecosystem that resolves key financial needs of its customers throughout their lifetimes,” says Nicolas Szekasy, managing partner of Kaszek Ventures, in a statement.

Another big winner is Redpoint’s e.ventures fund, which has focused on investments in Latin America for the last several years.

“By empowering Brazilians to take control of their lending needs at reasonable rates, Creditas creates a beloved consumer product that will drive significant value for customers and investors. Having been involved since the seed stage through Redpoint e.ventures, we’re thrilled to support the company with our Global Growth Fund as well, as they change the Brazilian fintech landscape,” said Mathias Schilling, co-founder and managing partner of e.ventures.

Creditas has plans to use the cash to expand its home and auto lending as well as a payday lending service based on customers’ salaries and a retail option to sell through buy now, pay later loans based on a customer’s salary.

The company is also looking to expand to other markets, with an eye toward establishing a foothold in the Mexican market.

Founded in 2012, when the founders worked out of a five-square-meter office on Berrini Avenue in São Paulo, the company now boasts a robust business with hundreds of employees and a business resting on a secured lending marketplace and independent home and auto lending operations.

The company also released quarterly results for the first time, showing losses narrowing from 74.9 million Brazilian reals to 40.5 million reals in the year ago quarter.

Hyundai buys controlling interest in Boston Dynamics

It’s official. Boston Dynamics is becoming part of the Hyundai family (pending regulatory approval, naturally). The Waltham, Massachusetts-based robot maker confirmed that the South Korean technology company is acquiring controlling interest in a press release today. The deal, which values the company at $1.1 billion, gives Hyundai Motor Group an 80% stake, with SoftBank controlling the remaining 20%.

The transaction marks the Spot-maker’s third change of hands in a mere seven years. After nearly a quarter-century operating as a research firm (with some big financial help from organizations like DARPA), it sold to Google in 2013, becoming part of a new robotics wing led by then-executive Andy Rubin.

After Google X Robotics was largely dissolved, Boston Dynamics changed hands in 2017, becoming a subsidiary of Japanese investment giant, Softbank. It was an odd fit for the company, and a rough year for Softbank likely hasn’t helped matters. At very least, Hyundai is a more logical home for the company, after being owned by a firm whose best-known robot is Pepper, the humanoid hospitality ‘bot.

As we noted while reporting on earlier rumors about the acquisition, Hyundai has been making some big investments in the category. The list includes a recent joint venture with Aptiv to commercialize autonomous driving systems. There’s also the recently announced ultimate mobility vehicles or UMV – a borderline sci-fi vehicle with legs.

“Boston Dynamics’ commercial business has grown rapidly as we’ve brought to market the first robot that can automate repetitive and dangerous tasks in workplaces designed for human-level mobility,”CEO Rob Playter said in a release tied to the deal. “We and Hyundai share a view of the transformational power of mobility and look forward to working together to accelerate our plans to enable the world with cutting edge automation, and to continue to solve the world’s hardest robotics challenges for our customers.”

Boston Dynamics, of course, has been blurring the lines between science fiction and reality for several decades now. More recently, however, it’s taken a much stronger interest in commercializing its advanced technologies. Under Softbank, the company launched Spot, a quadruped robot that draws on years of robotic innovation, including the iconic Big Dog.

Spot went up for sale last year in limited quantities. It’s now available for anyone in the U.S. with $74,500 burning a hole in their pocket. The company is also pushing to commercialize its wheeled Handle robot for warehouse and fulfillment related purposes. That robot is due out some time next year. While the sophistication and resulting price tags for the company’s robots have drawn a fair bit of skepticism, investors have taken increased interest in robots and automation firms in the wake of year-long COVID-19-related shutdowns.

“Hyundai Motor Group will provide Boston Dynamics a strategic partner affording access to Hyundai Motor Group’s in-house manufacturing capability and cost benefits stemming from efficiencies of scale,” according to the release. “Boston Dynamics will benefit substantially from new capital, technology, affiliated customers, and Hyundai Motor Group’s global market reach enhancing commercialization opportunity for its robot products.”

The deal is expected to close in by June.

India sets rules for commissions, surge pricing for Uber and Ola

Ride-hailing firms such as Ola and Uber can only draw a fee of up to 20% on ride fares in India, New Delhi said in guidelines on Friday, a new setback for the SoftBank-backed firms already struggling to improve their finances in the key overseas market.

The guidelines, which for the first time bring modern-age app-based ride-hailing firms under a regulatory framework in the country, also put a cap on the so-called surge pricing, the fare Uber and Ola charge during hours when their services see peak demands.

According to the guidelines, Ola and Uber — and any other app-operated, ride-hailing firm — can charge a maximum of 1.5 times of the base fare. They can, however, choose to offer their services at 50% of the base fare as well. The rules also state that drivers will not be permitted to work for more than 12 hours in a day, and that the companies need to provide them insurance cover.

Uber and Ola have not previously publicly shared precisely how much they charge their drivers for each ride, but industry estimates show that a driver partner with either of these firms makes up to 74% of the ride fare, after paying taxes. The new guidelines say drivers should get to keep at least 80% of fares.

The cap on the ride fare and implied insurance costs will raise operating costs in India for Uber and Ola, both of which have eliminated jobs in recent months amid the pandemic to trim costs. The South Asian nation, which has attracted many giant international firms in recent years as they look for their next growth market, in the meantime has entered an unprecedented recession.

But not everything about the guidelines will hurt Uber and Ola, both of which had no comment to share on Friday. The rules will enable the companies to offer pooling (shared car) services on private cars, though there is a daily limit of four intra-city rides on such cars, and two weekly inter-city rides.

Ujjwal Chaudhry, an associate partner at Bangalore-based marketing research consulting firm Redseer, said the guidelines by the government will have a mixed impact.

“While it is positive in terms of formalizing the sector as well as increasing the consumer trust on aggregators through improved safety regulations. But, overall the impact of these guidelines on the ecosystem growth are negative as capping surge and platform fee will ultimately lead to reduced earnings for 5 Lac (500,000) drivers (currently on these platforms) and will also lead to increased prices and higher wait times for the 6-8 crore (60 to 80 million) consumers who use it for their mobility and commute needs,” he said in a statement.

The rules also address a range of other factors surrounding a ride. For instance, under no circumstance can the cancellation fee imposed on a rider or driver be more than 10% of the total fare, and the fee cannot exceed 100 Indian rupees, or $1.35. Also, female passengers looking for a pooled service will have the option to share the cab with only female passengers, the rules say. Cab aggregators are also required to establish a control room with round-the-clock operations.

Ola and Uber dominate the app-based ride-hailing market in India. Both the companies claim to lead the market, though SoftBank, a common investor, said recently that Ola had a slight lead over Uber in India.

Google-backed Chinese truck-hailing firm Manbang raises $1.7 billion

The Chinese Uber for trucks Manbang announced Tuesday that it has raised $1.7 billion in its latest funding round, two years after it hauled in $1.9 billion from investors including SoftBank Group and Alphabet Inc’s venture capital fund CapitalG.

The news came fresh off a Wall Street Journal report two weeks ago that Manbang was seeking $1 billion ahead of an initial public offering next year. The company declined to comment on the matter, though its CEO Zhang Hui said in May 2019 that the firm was “not in a rush” to go public.

Manbang said it achieved profitability this year. Its valuation was reportedly on course to reach $10 billion in 2018.

The company, which runs an app matching truck drivers and merchants transporting cargo and provides financial services to truckers, was formed from a merger between rivals Yunmanman and Huochebang in 2017. It was a time when China’s “sharing economy” craze began to see consolidation and shakeup.

The latest financing again attracted high-profile backers, including returning investors SoftBank Vision Fund and Sequoia Capital China, Permira and Fidelity, a consortium that co-led the round. Other participants were Hillhouse Capital, GGV Capital, Lightspeed China Partners, Tencent, Jack Ma’s YF Capital and more.

The company has other Alibaba ties. Its CEO Zhang, who founded Yunmanman, hailed from Alibaba’s famed B2B department where Manbang chairman Wang Gang also worked before he went on to fund ride-hailing giant Didi’s angel round.

Manbang claims its platform has over 10 million verified drivers and 5 million cargo owners. The latest funding will allow it to further invest in research and development, upgrade its matching system, and expand its service capacity to functions like door-to-door transportation.

Sequoia is quite bullish about truck-hailing as it made its sixth investment in Manbang. For Permira, a European private equity fund, the Manbang investment marked the China debut of its Growth Opportunities Fund.

Masayoshi Son says SoftBank now has “$80 billion in cash on hand” just in case

Masayoshi Son, the founder and CEO of the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, has had a topsy turvy year or two, but the story he is eager to tell is that he is back and in the black.

Such was the overarching message delivered at a virtual Dealbook conference earlier today, with Son joining from Tokyo and sounding sanguine about a wide range of issues, from TikTok’s future (SoftBank is an investor in its parent company, Bytedance); to the future of ousted WeWork cofounder Adam Neumann, a company on which SoftBank has lost billions of dollars (“I’m a big believer that someday he will be very successful”); to SoftBank’s ability to shop opportunistically, thanks to a massive asset sell-off that Son says has provided SoftBank with “$80 billion in cash on hand.”

In case you missed the chat, we’re bringing you some highlights, starting with the one thing that is causing the “optimistic” Son to feel “pessimistic in the short-term.”

On COVID-19:

Son says that in March, he was accused by local medical professionals of trying to cause a panic after tweeting about his concern over the coronavirus.

SoftBank has since begun operating the largest private testing facility in Japan, a country of 126.5 million that is currently seeing roughly 1,300 new cases each day (compared to the U.S., home to 328 million people and currently seeing more than 166,000 new cases each day).

Son credits Japanese citizens with the country’s success to date in battling back the pandemic, saying they “all wear a mask by themselves . . .they are very conscious about this.” But he said that “any disaster” could happen “in the next two to three months” before the mass production and distribution of a vaccine.  A “major company could collapse” causing a domino effect, not unlike what happened when Lehman Brothers was abruptly forced to file bankruptcy in 2008, shaking up the entire banking industry.

“Anything can happen in this kind of situation,” said Son, adding, “I think it’s getting better with this news of the vaccines’ success. But I still want to be prepared for the worst-case scenario, so that’s why today we have almost $80 billion cash in hand ourselves.” Son went on to say that SoftBank has “enough funding,” but that “I thought cash is very important in this kind of crisis.”

On that massive cash pile:

Interviewer Andrew Ross Sorkin did not ask, and Son did not remark, about Elliott Management, the hedge-fund firm believed to be the second biggest shareholder of SoftBank and which reportedly pressured Son to sell off assets and buy back some of the company’s own shares, whose price had fallen precipitously earlier this year.

In the meantime, Son suggested that it was his own decision to snatch up depressed SoftBank shares, saying that when in March, its stock had sunk almost 70% in value, “I said, ‘Oh my god, this is the best time for me to buy back shares, when our discount to the our underlying asset went over 70%, like 75%.’ So I could buy our own company for one-fourth the price of underlying assets. I said, ‘Oh my god, I should buy, I should buy it.'”

Son did answer whether part of that asset sale was also driven by an interest in plugging more money into SoftBank’s existing portfolio companies — some of which have suffered during the pandemic — or whether he anticipates being able to swoop in and buy up other, new assets.

Unsurprisingly, Son said that “If we can invest in these front end companies, if we can invest more into those opportunities, I will be aggressive,” noting that pricing for so-called unicorns that need funding has improved.

On the WeWork debacle and lessons learned:

Speaking of unicorns, Sorkin brought up WeWork, the coworking company into which SoftBank somewhat famously jammed at least $18.5 billion — “billions” of which it subsequently lost, acknowledged Son.

Sorkin asked what lessons were learned from SoftBank’s involvement with the company, but Son, who later said in the interview that he is someone who accepts his bad decisions so he can learn from them, didn’t exactly acknowledge a failing on SoftBank’s part, pointing the finger instead at cofounder and former CEO Adam Neumann, who was elbowed out the door of the company roughly a year ago.

Said Son: “I think this is a lesson that Adam Neumann himself is telling himself he made a mistake. He’s a smart guy. I think he admits he made a few mistakes. I think that he’s a smart guy, he’s an aggressive guy, he has lots of capability, he can convince people, he’s a great leader. But he made some mistakes. Any human makes some mistakes.”

The furthest Son went was to say that, “I’m part of the responsibility of his mistake,” before continuing on regarding Neumann, saying: “So, I still love him. I still respect him. I’m sure he would come back and do some great stuff in his rest of the world and his life. So I’m a big believer that someday he will be very successful. And he would he would say he has learned a lot from his prior life.”

On the Trump administration’s efforts to ban TikTok in the U.S.:

Son also has a vested interest in TikTok’s success. It was roughly two years ago that it led a $3 billion round in TikTok’s parent company, Bytedance, which was valued at $78 billion at the time and which is currently raising a new round from investors that would value the still-private company at a whopping $180 billion, according to recent reports. (It’s very much a SoftBank-style deal in this regard, and it will be interesting to see if SoftBank is leading this next round at more than twice the company’s previous valuation.)

As for the pressure that Bytedance came under this fall to sell its TikTok’s U.S. operations, with Oracle and Walmart both involved in the bid, Son called it a “sad thing” if a service that “people enjoy a lot gets discontinued because of some political concerns [over] something that is actually not happening.”

Indeed, Son insisted that, based on his discussions with the company’s top brass, Bytedance has no interest in compromising the privacy of its users or the national security of the countries in which TikTok operates, be it the U.S., India, Japan, or European countries. He added that for those regions with lingering concerns, there is “always a solution, like putting servers in each country where the politicians may feel much more comfortable about protecting security national security . . .there is always a technical solution.”