Vietnamese financial services app MFast gets $1.5M pre-Series A led by Do Ventures

MFast founders Phan Thanh Long and Phan Thanh Vinh

MFast founders Phan Thanh Long and Phan Thanh Vinh

MFast, a mobile app that lets Vietnamese users in remote areas access financial services, announced it has raised a $1.5 million pre-Series A today. The round was led by Do Ventures, with participation from JAFCO Asia. 

Launched in 2019 by fintech company Digipay, MFast says it has been used by 600,000 people to date. It partners with financial institutions who provide services like loans and insurance, and says it has been used to distribute more than 50 billion VND (about $2.2 million USD) worth of products so far.

The majority, or about 75% to 80% of MFast’s users are in remote provinces or rural areas, which the company says often limits their access to banking and credit-related services. 

The funding will be used to expand MFast to more cities and provinces in Vietnam, develop its technology and partner with more institutions. MFast also plans to enter other markets in the future. 

MFast’s consumer credit partners include Mirae Asset, CIMB, Mcredit and Easy Credit, and its insurance partners include PVI, PTI and BSH. It claims to have a network of more than 350,000 advisors, who offers their services through the app, and that its data analysis tools are able to reduce bad debt and fraud rates. 

Perspectives on tackling Big Tech’s market power

The need for markets-focused competition watchdogs and consumer-centric privacy regulators to think outside their respective ‘legal silos’ and find creative ways to work together to tackle the challenge of big tech market power was the impetus for a couple of fascinating panel discussions organized by the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), which were livestreamed yesterday but are available to view on-demand here.

The conversations brought together key regulatory leaders from Europe and the US — giving a glimpse of what the future shape of digital markets oversight might look like at a time when fresh blood has just been injected to chair the FTC so regulatory change is very much in the air (at least around tech antitrust).

CEPR’s discussion premise is that integration, not merely intersection, of competition and privacy/data protection law is needed to get a proper handle on platform giants that have, in many cases, leveraged their market power to force consumers to accept an abusive ‘fee’ of ongoing surveillance.

That fee both strips consumers of their privacy and helps tech giants perpetuate market dominance by locking out interesting new competition (which can’t get the same access to people’s data so operates at a baked in disadvantage).

A running theme in Europe for a number of years now, since a 2018 flagship update to the bloc’s data protection framework (GDPR), has been the ongoing under-enforcement around the EU’s ‘on-paper’ privacy rights — which, in certain markets, means regional competition authorities are now actively grappling with exactly how and where the issue of ‘data abuse’ fits into their antitrust legal frameworks.

The regulators assembled for CEPR’s discussion included, from the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority’s CEO Andrea Coscelli and the information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham; from Germany, the FCO’s Andreas Mundt; from France, Henri Piffaut, VP of the French competition authority; and from the EU, the European Data Protection Supervisor himself, Wojciech Wiewiórowski, who advises the EU’s executive body on data protection legislation (and is the watchdog for EU institutions’ own data use).

The UK’s CMA now sits outside the EU, of course — giving the national authority a higher profile role in global mergers & acquisition decisions (vs pre-brexit), and the chance to help shape key standards in the digital sphere via the investigations and procedures it chooses to pursue (and it has been moving very quickly on that front).

The CMA has a number of major antitrust probes open into tech giants — including looking into complaints against Apple’s App Store and others targeting Google’s plan to depreciate support for third party tracking cookies (aka the so-called ‘Privacy Sandbox’) — the latter being an investigation where the CMA has actively engaged the UK’s privacy watchdog (the ICO) to work with it.

Only last week the competition watchdog said it was minded to accept a set of legally binding commitments that Google has offered which could see a quasi ‘co-design’ process taking place, between the CMA, the ICO and Google, over the shape of the key technology infrastructure that ultimately replaces tracking cookies. So a pretty major development.

Germany’s FCO has also been very active against big tech this year — making full use of an update to the national competition law which gives it the power to take proactive inventions around large digital platforms with major competitive significance — with open procedures now against Amazon, Facebook and Google.

The Bundeskartellamt was already a pioneer in pushing to loop EU data protection rules into competition enforcement in digital markets in a strategic case against Facebook, as we’ve reported before. That closely watched (and long running) case — which targets Facebook’s ‘superprofiling’ of users, based on its ability to combine user data from multiple sources to flesh out a single high dimension per-user profile — is now headed to Europe’s top court (so likely has more years to run).

But during yesterday’s discussion Mundt confirmed that the FCO’s experience litigating that case helped shape key amendments to the national law that’s given him beefier powers to tackle big tech. (And he suggested it’ll be a lot easier to regulate tech giants going forward, using these new national powers.)

“Once we have designated a company to be of ‘paramount significance’ we can prohibit certain conduct much more easily than we could in the past,” he said. “We can prohibit, for example, that a company impedes other undertaking by data processing that is relevant for competition. We can prohibit that a use of service depends on the agreement to data collection with no choice — this is the Facebook case, indeed… When this law was negotiated in parliament parliament very much referred to the Facebook case and in a certain sense this entwinement of competition law and data protection law is written in a theory of harm in the German competition law.

“This makes a lot of sense. If we talk about dominance and if we assess that this dominance has come into place because of data collection and data possession and data processing you need a parameter in how far a company is allowed to gather the data to process it.”

“The past is also the future because this Facebook case… has always been a big case. And now it is up to the European Court of Justice to say something on that,” he added. “If everything works well we might get a very clear ruling saying… as far as the ECN [European Competition Network] is concerned how far we can integrate GDPR in assessing competition matters.

“So Facebook has always been a big case — it might get even bigger in a certain sense.”

France’s competition authority and its national privacy regulator (the CNIL), meanwhile, have also been joint working in recent years.

Including over a competition complaint against Apple’s pro-user privacy App Tracking Transparency feature (which last month the antitrust watchdog declined to block) — so there’s evidence there too of respective oversight bodies seeking to bridge legal silos in order to crack the code of how to effectively regulate tech giants whose market power, panellists agreed, is predicated on earlier failures of competition law enforcement that allowed tech platforms to buy up rivals and sew up access to user data, entrenching advantage at the expense of user privacy and locking out the possibility of future competitive challenge.

The contention is that monopoly power predicated upon data access also locks consumers into an abusive relationship with platform giants which can then, in the case of ad giants like Google and Facebook, extract huge costs (paid not in monetary fees but in user privacy) for continued access to services that have also become digital staples — amping up the ‘winner takes all’ characteristic seen in digital markets (which is obviously bad for competition too).

Yet, traditionally at least, Europe’s competition authorities and data protection regulators have been focused on separate workstreams.

The consensus from the CEPR panels was very much that that is both changing and must change if civil society is to get a grip on digital markets — and wrest control back from tech giants to that ensure consumers and competitors aren’t both left trampled into the dust by data-mining giants.

Denham said her motivation to dial up collaboration with other digital regulators was the UK government entertaining the idea of creating a one-stop-shop ‘Internet’ super regulator. “What scared the hell out of me was the policymakers the legislators floating the idea of one regulator for the Internet. I mean what does that mean?” she said. “So I think what the regulators did is we got to work, we got busy, we become creative, got our of our silos to try to tackle these companies — the likes of which we have never seen before.

“And I really think what we have done in the UK — and I’m excited if others think it will work in their jurisdictions — but I think that what really pushed us is that we needed to show policymakers and the public that we had our act together. I think consumers and citizens don’t really care if the solution they’re looking for comes from the CMA, the ICO, Ofcom… they just want somebody to have their back when it comes to protection of privacy and protection of markets.

“We’re trying to use our regulatory levers in the most creative way possible to make the digital markets work and protect fundamental rights.”

During the earlier panel, the CMA’s Simeon Thornton, a director at the authority, made some interesting remarks vis-a-vis its (ongoing) Google ‘Privacy Sandbox’ investigation — and the joint working it’s doing with the ICO on that case — asserting that “data protection and respecting users’ rights to privacy are very much at the heart of the commitments upon which we are currently consulting”.

“If we accept the commitments Google will be required to develop the proposals according to a number of criteria including impacts on privacy outcomes and compliance with data protection principles, and impacts on user experience and user control over the use of their personal data — alongside the overriding objective of the commitments which is to address our competition concerns,” he went on, adding: “We have worked closely with the ICO in seeking to understand the proposals and if we do accept the commitments then we will continue to work closely with the ICO in influencing the future development of those proposals.”

“If we accept the commitments that’s not the end of the CMA’s work — on the contrary that’s when, in many respects, the real work begins. Under the commitments the CMA will be closely involved in the development, implementation and monitoring of the proposals, including through the design of trials for example. It’s a substantial investment from the CMA and we will be dedicating the right people — including data scientists, for example, to the job,” he added. “The commitments ensure that Google addresses any concerns that the CMA has. And if outstanding concerns cannot be resolved with Google they explicitly provide for the CMA to reopen the case and — if necessary — impose any interim measures necessary to avoid harm to competition.

“So there’s no doubt this is a big undertaking. And it’s going to be challenging for the CMA, I’m sure of that. But personally I think this is the sort of approach that is required if we are really to tackle the sort of concerns we’re seeing in digital markets today.”

Thornton also said: “I think as regulators we do need to step up. We need to get involved before the harm materializes — rather than waiting after the event to stop it from materializing, rather than waiting until that harm is irrevocable… I think it’s a big move and it’s a challenging one but personally I think it’s a sign of the future direction of travel in a number of these sorts of cases.”

Also speaking during the regulatory panel session was FTC commissioner Rebecca Slaughter — a dissenter on the $5BN fine it hit Facebook with back in 2019 for violating an earlier consent order (as she argued the settlement provided no deterrent to address underlying privacy abuse, leaving Facebook free to continue exploiting users’ data) — as well as Chris D’Angelo, the chief deputy AG of the New York Attorney General, which is leading a major states antitrust case against Facebook.

Slaughter pointed out that the FTC already combines a consumer focus with attention on competition but said that historically there has been separation of divisions and investigations — and she agreed on the need for more joined-up working.

She also advocated for US regulators to get out of a pattern of ineffective enforcement in digital markets on issues like privacy and competition where companies have, historically, been given — at best — what amounts to wrist slaps that don’t address root causes of market abuse, perpetuating both consumer abuse and market failure. And be prepared to litigate more.

As regulators toughen up their stipulations they will need to be prepared for tech giants to push back — and therefore be prepared to sue instead of accepting a weak settlement.

“That is what is most galling to me that even where we take action, in our best faith good public servants working hard to take action, we keep coming back to the same questions, again and again,” she said. “Which means that the actions we are taking isn’t working. We need different action to keep us from having the same conversation again and again.”

Slaughter also argued that it’s important for regulators not to pile all the burden of avoiding data abuses on consumers themselves.

“I want to sound a note of caution around approaches that are centered around user control,” she said. “I think transparency and control are important. I think it is really problematic to put the burden on consumers to work through the markets and the use of data, figure out who has their data, how it’s being used, make decisions… I think you end up with notice fatigue; I think you end up with decision fatigue; you get very abusive manipulation of dark patterns to push people into decisions.

“So I really worry about a framework that is built at all around the idea of control as the central tenant or the way we solve the problem. I’ll keep coming back to the notion of what instead we need to be focusing on is where is the burden on the firms to limit their collection in the first instance, prohibit their sharing, prohibit abusive use of data and I think that that’s where we need to be focused from a policy perspective.

“I think there will be ongoing debates about privacy legislation in the US and while I’m actually a very strong advocate for a better federal framework with more tools that facilitate aggressive enforcement but I think if we had done it ten years ago we probably would have ended up with a notice and consent privacy law and I think that that would have not been a great outcome for consumers at the end of the day. So I think the debate and discussion has evolved in an important way. I also think we don’t have to wait for Congress to act.”

As regards more radical solutions to the problem of market-denting tech giants — such as breaking up sprawling and (self-servingly) interlocking services empires — the message from Europe’s most ‘digitally switched on’ regulators seemed to be don’t look to us for that; we are going to have to stay in our lanes.

So tl;dr — if antitrust and privacy regulators’ joint working just sums to more intelligent fiddling round the edges of digital market failure, and it’s break-ups of US tech giants that’s what’s really needed to reboot digital markets, then it’s going to be up to US agencies to wield the hammers. (Or, as Coscelli elegantly phrased it: “It’s probably more realistic for the US agencies to be in the lead in terms of structural separation if and when it’s appropriate — rather than an agency like ours [working from inside a mid-sized economy such as the UK’s].”)

The lack of any representative from the European Commission on the panel was an interesting omission in that regard — perhaps hinting at ongoing ‘structural separation’ between DG Comp and DG Justice where digital policymaking streams are concerned.

The current competition chief, Margrethe Vestager — who also heads up digital strategy for the bloc, as an EVP — has repeatedly expressed reluctance to impose radical ‘break up’ remedies on tech giants. She also recently preferred to waive through another Google digital merger (its acquisition of fitness wearable Fitbit) — agreeing to accept a number of ‘concessions’ and ignoring major mobilization by civil society (and indeed EU data protection agencies) urging her to block it.

Yet in an earlier CEPR discussion session, another panellist — Yale University’s Dina Srinivasan — pointed to the challenges of trying to regulate the behavior of companies when there are clear conflicts of interest, unless and until you impose structural separation as she said has been necessary in other markets (like financial services).

“In advertising we have an electronically traded market with exchanges and we have brokers on both sides. In a competitive market — when competition was working — you saw that those brokers were acting in the best interest of buyers and sellers. And as part of carrying out that function they were sort of protecting the data that belonged to buyers and sellers in that market, and not playing with the data in other ways — not trading on it, not doing conduct similar to insider trading or even front running,” she said, giving an example of how that changed as Google gained market power.

“So Google acquired DoubleClick, made promises to continue operating in that manner, the promises were not binding and on the record — the enforcement agencies or the agencies that cleared the merger didn’t make Google promise that they would abide by that moving forward and so as Google gained market power in that market there’s no regulatory requirement to continue to act in the best interests of your clients, so now it becomes a market power issue, and after they gain enough market power they can flip data ownership and say ‘okay, you know what before you owned this data and we weren’t allowed to do anything with it but now we’re going to use that data to for example sell our own advertising on exchanges’.

“But what we know from other markets — and from financial markets — is when you flip data ownership and you engage in conduct like that that allows the firm to now build market power in yet another market.”

The CMA’s Coscelli picked up on Srinivasan’s point — saying it was a “powerful” one, and that the challenges of policing “very complicated” situations involving conflicts of interests is something that regulators with merger control powers should be bearing in mind as they consider whether or not to green light tech acquisitions.

(Just one example of a merger in the digital space that the CMA is still scrutizing is Facebook’s acquisition of animated GIF platform Giphy. And it’s interesting to speculate whether, had brexit happened a little faster, the CMA might have stepped in to block Google’s Fitibit merger where the EU wouldn’t.)

Coscelli also flagged the issue of regulatory under-enforcement in digital markets as a key one, saying: “One of the reasons we are today where we are is partially historic under-enforcement by competition authorities on merger control — and that’s a theme that is extremely interesting and relevant to us because after the exit from the EU we now have a bigger role in merger control on global mergers. So it’s very important to us that we take the right decisions going forward.”

“Quite often we intervene in areas where there is under-enforcement by regulators in specific areas… If you think about it when you design systems where you have vertical regulators in specific sectors and horizontal regulators like us or the ICO we are more successful if the vertical regulators do their job and I’m sure they are more success if we do our job properly.

“I think we systematically underestimate… the ability of companies to work through whatever behavior or commitments or arrangement are offered to us, so I think these are very important points,” he added, signalling that a higher degree of attention is likely to be applied to tech mergers in Europe as a result of the CMA stepping out from the EU’s competition regulation umbrella.

Also speaking during the same panel, the EDPS warned that across Europe more broadly — i.e. beyond the small but engaged gathering of regulators brought together by CEPR — data protection and competition regulators are far from where they need to be on joint working, implying that the challenge of effectively regulating big tech across the EU is still a pretty Sisyphean one.

It’s true that the Commission is not sitting on hands in the face of tech giant market power.

At the end of last year it proposed a regime of ex ante regulations for so-called ‘gatekeeper’ platforms, under the Digital Markets Act. But the problem of how to effectively enforce pan-EU laws — when the various agencies involved in oversight are typically decentralized across Member States — is one key complication for the bloc. (The Commission’s answer with the DMA was to suggest putting itself in charge of overseeing gatekeepers but it remains to be seen what enforcement structure EU institutions will agree on.)

Clearly, the need for careful and coordinated joint working across multiple agencies with different legal competencies — if, indeed, that’s really what’s needed to properly address captured digital markets vs structural separation of Google’s search and adtech, for example, and Facebook’s various social products — steps up the EU’s regulatory challenge in digital markets.

“We can say that no effective competition nor protection of the rights in the digital economy can be ensured when the different regulators do not talk to each other and understand each other,” Wiewiórowski warned. “While we are still thinking about the cooperation it looks a little bit like everybody is afraid they will have to trade a little bit of its own possibility to assess.”

“If you think about the classical regulators isn’t it true that at some point we are reaching this border where we know how to work, we know how to behave, we need a little bit of help and a little bit of understanding of the other regulator’s work… What is interesting for me is there is — at the same time — the discussion about splitting of the task of the American regulators joining the ones on the European side. But even the statements of some of the commissioners in the European Union saying about the bigger role the Commission will play in the data protection and solving the enforcement problems of the GDPR show there is no clear understanding what are the differences between these fields.”

One thing is clear: Big tech’s dominance of digital markets won’t be unpicked overnight. But, on both sides of the Atlantic, there are now a bunch of theories on how to do it — and growing appetite to wade in.

The fintech endgame: New supercompanies combine the best of software and financials

If money is the ultimate commodity, how can fintechs — which sell money, move money or sell insurance against monetary loss — build products that remain differentiated and create lasting value over time?

And why are so many software companies — which already boast highly differentiated offerings and serve huge markets— moving to offer financial services embedded within their products?

A new and attractive hybrid category of company is emerging at the intersection of software and financial services, creating buzz in the investment and entrepreneurial communities, as we discussed at our “Fintech: The Endgame” virtual conference and accompanying report this week.

These specialized companies — in some cases, software companies that also process payments and hold funds on behalf of their customers, and in others, financial-first companies that integrate workflow and features more reminiscent of software companies — combine some of the best attributes of both categories.

Image Credits: Battery Ventures

From software, they design for strong user engagement linked to helpful, intuitive products that drive retention over the long term. From financials, they draw on the ability to earn revenues indexed to the growth of a customer’s business.

Fintech is poised to revolutionize financial services, both through reinventing existing products and driving new business models as financial services become more pervasive within other sectors.

The powerful combination of these two models is rapidly driving both public and private market value as investors grant these “super” companies premium valuations — in the public sphere, nearly twice the median multiple of pure software companies, according to a Battery analysis.

The near-perfect example of this phenomenon is Shopify, the company that made its name selling software to help business owners launch and manage online stores. Despite achieving notable scale with this original SaaS product, Shopify today makes twice as much revenue from payments as it does from software by enabling those business owners to accept credit card payments and acting as its own payment processor.

The combination of a software solution indexed to e-commerce growth, combined with a profitable payments stream growing even faster than its software revenues, has investors granting Shopify a 31x multiple on its forward revenues, according to CapIQ data as of May 26.

How should we value these fintech companies, anyway?

Before even talking about how investors should value these hybrid companies, it’s worth making the point that in both private and public markets, fintechs have been notoriously hard to value, fomenting controversy and debate in the investment community.

Contentstack raises $57.5M for its headless content management system

Contentstack, a startup that offers a headless content management system (or a ‘content experience platform’ in marketing speak), today announced that it has raised a $57.5 million Series B round. The round, which the company says was oversubscribed, was led by Insight Partners, which also led its Series A round. New investor Georgian and existing investors Illuminate Ventures and GingerBread Capital also participated. With this, the company has now raised a total of $89 million.

“In the last year, we have helped leading companies in industries such as retail, financial services, gaming and travel to create personalized experiences for their customers in order to drive revenue, improve customer satisfaction and build customer loyalty,” said Neha Sampat, founder and CEO of Contentstack. “This round of financing demonstrates that our strategy is paying off, including our core beliefs around equality, customer care and product innovation. During a remarkably challenging year, our team delivered impressive results and we are excited to continue this growth trajectory by delivering the best agile CMS platform for a digital-first world.”

The company says it saw its customer base grow over 150% since closing its $31.5 million Series A round in October 2019. Among its new customers are Broadcom, Chico’s FAS, HP, La Perla, Leesa Sleep, McDonald’s and NBC.

In recent months, Contentstack launched a new user interface for these customers and the company argues that Georgian’s focus on AI and machine learning will allow it to bring more of these modern technologies to its platform as well.

“We are big believers in Contentstack and the leadership team, especially after our conversations with global brands revealed how important Contentstack is to these organizations and how beloved the product is by both business and technical users,” said Emily Walsh, Lead Investor at Georgian. “Now with access to our technology platform, Contenstack can not only gain operational efficiencies but also supercharge the innovation, experience and support it offers to customers and partners. We are excited to help Contentstack customers leverage AI to gain business advantages through new insights and automation.”

The company plans to use the new funding to accelerate its investments in this technology, fuel its international growth and expand its partner ecosystem.

Wagely, an Indonesian earned wage access and financial services platform, raises $5.6M

A group photo of Wagely's founding team: Tobias Fischer, Sasanadi Ruka and Kevin Hausburg

Wagely founders (from l to r): Tobias Fischer, Sasanadi Ruka and Kevin Hausburg

Earned wage access (EWA) platforms that allow workers to withdraw their earnings on demand instead of waiting until payday are proliferating around the world. Today, Indonesian EWA startup wagely announced it has raised $5.6 million in strategic funding, led by Integra Partners (formerly known as Dymon Asia Ventures). Other investors included the Asian Development Bank (ADB) Ventures, PT Triputra Investindo Arya, Global Founders Capital, Trihill Capital, 1982 Ventures and Willy Swandi Dharma, former president director of insurance company PT Asuransi Adira Dinamika.

Founded in 2020 by alumni of two of Southeast Asia’s largest tech companies, wagely expects to reach more than 250,000 users this year. Chief executive officer Tobias Fischer was former regional lending program manager at Grab Financial Services Asia, while chief technology officer Sasanadi Rukua served as vice president of engineering at Tokopedia.

Fischer told TechCrunch that after working at financial services companies in Southeast Asia, he and Ruka saw that “managing cashflow is the most pressing everyday issue for lower- and middle-income Indonesians.”

While the pandemic exacerbated financial hardships, Fischer said more than 75% of Indonesians already struggled to cover unexpected expenses between paychecks. Many borrow from family or friends, but if that option is unavailable, they may turn to payday lenders who can charge more than 360% annualized percentage rates, or pay overdraft and late fees to their banks until their next paycheck.

“This is the start of a vicious and costly debt cycle that has a long-lasting negative impact on individual financial well-being, which in turn impacts businesses with higher turnover, lower productivity and more employee loans,” Fischer said.

On average, more than 50% of employees at wagely’s enterprise clients use it multiple times throughout the month to track their daily earnings and access their earned wages. The company’s ultimate goal is “to build a holistic financial wellness platform for lower- and middle-income workers” that includes other financial services, including savings, insurance and smart spending products, Fischer said.

More companies around the world are allowing workers to pick when they get paid. Some notable EWA platforms include Gusto’s Flexible Pay; DailyPay, which recently hit unicorn status; Wagestream; Minu and Even. In Indonesia, wagely’s competitors include GajiGesa and Gajiku.

Fischer said wagely “created the earned wage access category in Indonesia,” and is the market leader with more than 50 large companies, including state-owned enterprises and multi-national conglomerates. Its new funding will be used to increase wagely’s sales team in order to close more enterprise deals. Wagely’s current customers include PT Bentoel Internasional Investama Tbk (British American Tobacco); PT Supra Boga Lestari Tbk (Ranch Market); beauty and wellness company PT Mustika Ratu Tbk; and renewable energy group PT Kencana Energi Lestari Tbk.

In a press statement, Wilson Maknawi, president director at PT Kencana Energi Lestari TBK, said, “wagely offers our employees financial stability in times of uncertainty. It is incredibly important and a crucial step for the long-term resilience of our business. With no changes to our payroll process, wagely’s solution has proven to increase our business savings and helped our employees to avoid predatory loans while providing savings and budget tools that increase their financial literacy.”

Fintech all-star Nubank raises a $750M mega round

In 2013, Colombian businessman David Velez decided to reinvent the Brazilian banking system. He didn’t speak Portuguese, nor was he an engineer or a banker, but he did have the conviction that the system was broken and that he could fix it. And as a former Sequoia VC, he also had access to capital.

His gut instinct and market analysis were right. Today, Nubank announced a $750 million extension to its Series G (which rang in at $400 million this past January), bringing the round to a total of $1.15 billion and their valuation to $30 billion — $5 billion more than when we covered them in January.

The extension funding was led by Berkshire Hathaway, which put in $500 million, and a number of other investors.

Velez and his team decided now was a good time to raise again, because, “We saw a great opportunity in terms of growth rate and we’re very tiny when compared to the incumbents,” he told TechCrunch.”

Nubank is the biggest digital bank in the world by number of customers: 40 million. The company started as a tech company in Brazil that offered only a fee-free credit card with a line of credit of R$50 (about USD$10). 

It now offers a variety of financial products, including a digital bank account, a debit card, insurance, P2P payment via Pix (the Brazilian equivalent of Zelle), loans, rewards, life insurance and an account and credit card for small business owners. 

Nubank serves unbanked or underserviced citizens in Brazil — about 30% of the population — and this approach can be extremely profitable because there are many more clients available.

The banking system in Brazil is one of the few bureaucracies in the country that is actually quite skillful, but the customer service remains unbearable, and banks charge exorbitant fees for any little transaction. 

Traditionally, the banking industry has been dominated by five major traditional banks: Itaú Unibanco, Banco do Brasil, Bradesco, Santander and Caixa Economica Federal. 

While Brazil remains Nubank’s primary market, the company also offers services in Colombia and Mexico (services launched in Mexico in 2018). The company still only offers the credit card in both countries.

“The momentum we’re seeing in Mexico is terrific. Our Mexican credit card net promoter score (NPS) is 93, which is the highest we’ve had in Nubank history. In Brazil the highest we’ve had was 88,” Velez said.

The company has been on a hiring spree in the last few months, and brought on two heavyweight executives. Matt Swann replaced Ed Wible (the original CTO and co-founder). Wible continues to be an important player in the company, but more in a software developer capacity. Swann previously served as CTO at Bookings.com and StubHub, and as CIO of the Global Consumer Bank at Citi, so he brings years of experience of scaling tech businesses, which is what Nubank is focused on now, though Velez wouldn’t confirm which countries are next.

The other major hire, Arturo Nunez, fills the new role of chief marketing officer. Nunez was head of marketing for Apple Latin America, amongst other roles with Nike and the NBA. 

It may sound a little odd for a tech company not to have had a head of marketing, but Nubank takes pride in having a $0 cost of acquisition (CAC). Instead of spending money on marketing, they spend it on customer service and then rely on word of mouth to get the word out.

Since we last spoke with Velez in January regarding the $400 million Series G, the company went from having 34 million customers to now having 40 million in a span of roughly 6 months. The funds will be used to grow the business, including hiring more people.

“We’ve seen the entire market go digital, especially people who never thought they would,” Velez said. “There is really now an avalanche of all backgrounds [of people] who are getting into digital banking.”

SoftBank pours up to $150M into GBM, a Mexico City-based investment platform

Grupo Bursátil Mexicano (GBM) is a 35-year-old investment platform in the Mexican stock market. In its first three decades of life, GBM was focused on providing investment services to high net worth individuals and local and global institutions.

Over the past decade, the Mexico City-based brokerage has ramped up its digital efforts, and, in the past five years, has evolved its business model to offer services to all Mexicans with the same products and services it offers large estates.

Today, GBM is announcing it has received an investment of “up to” $150 million from SoftBank via the Japanese conglomerate’s Latin America Fund at a valuation of “over $1 billion.” The investment is being made through one of GBM’s subsidiaries and is not contingent on anything, according to the company.

Co-CEO Pedro de Garay Montero told TechCrunch that GBM has built an app, GBM+, that organizes and invests clients’ money through three different tools: Wealth Management, Trading and Smart Cash.

Last year was a “historic” one for the company, he said, and GBM went from having 38,000 investment accounts in January 2020 to more than 650,000 by year’s end. In the first quarter of 2021, that number had grown to over 1 million — representing more than 30x growth from the beginning of 2020.

For some context, according to the National Banking and Securities Commission (CNBV), there were only 298,000 brokerage accounts in Mexico at the end of 2019, and that number climbed to 940,000 by the end of 2020 — with GBM holding a large share of them.

Most of GBM’s clients are retail clients, but the company also caters to “most of the largest investment managers worldwide,” as well as global companies such as Netflix, Google and BlackRock. Specifically, it services 40% of the largest public corporations in Mexico and a large base of ultra high net worth individuals.

The company is planning to use its new capital in part to invest “heavily” in customer acquisition.

Montero said that half of its team of 450 are tech professionals, and that the company plans to also continue hiring as it focuses on growth in its B2C and B2B offerings and expanding into new verticals.

“We are improving our already robust financial education offering,” he added, “so that Mexicans can take control of their finances. GBM’s mission is to transform Mexico into a country of investors.”

Because Mexico is such a huge market — with a population of over 120 million and a GDP of more than $1 trillion — GBM is laser-focused on growing its presence in the country.

“The financial services industry is dominated by big banks and is inefficient, expensive and provides a poor client experience. This has resulted in less than 1% of individuals having an investment account,” Montero told TechCrunch. “We will be targeting clients through our own platform and internal advisors, as well as growing our base of external advisors to reach as many people as possible with the best investment products and user experience.”

When it comes to institutional clients, he believes there is “enormous potential” in serving both the large corporations and the SMEs “who have received limited services from banks.”

Juan Franck, investment lead for SoftBank Latin America Fund in Mexico, believes the retail investment space in Mexico is at an inflection point.

“The investing culture in Mexico has historically been low compared to the rest of the world, even when specifically compared to other countries in Latin America, like Brazil,” he added. “However, the landscape is quickly changing as, through technology, Mexicans are being provided more education around investing and more investment alternatives.”

In the midst of this shift, SoftBank was impressed by GBM’s “clear vision and playbook,” Franck said.

So, despite being a decades-old company, SoftBank sees big potential in the strength of the digital platform that GBM has built out.

“GBM is the leading broker in Mexico in terms of trading activity and broker accounts,” he said. “The company combines decades of industry know-how with an entrepreneurial drive to revolutionize the wealth management space in the country.”

Jeeves emerges from stealth with $131M in debt and equity and a16z as a lead investor

Jeeves, which is building an “all-in-one expense management platform” for global startups, is emerging from stealth today with $131 million in total funding, including $31 million in equity and $100 million in debt financing. 

The $31 million in equity consists of a new $26 million Series A and a previously unannounced $5 million seed round.

Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) led the Series A funding, which also included participation from YC Continuity Fund, Jaguar Ventures, Urban Innovation Fund, Uncorrelated Ventures, Clocktower Ventures, Stanford University, 9 Yards Capital and BlockFi Ventures.

A high-profile group of angel investors also put money in the round, including NFL wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and the founders of five LatAm unicorns — Nubank CEO David Velez, Kavak CEO Carlos Garcia, Rappi co-founder Sebastian Mejia, Bitso CEO Daniel Vogel and Loft CEO Florian Hagenbuch. Justo’s Ricardo Weder also participated in this round and Plaid co-founder William Hockey put money in the $5 million seed funding that closed in 2020 after the company completed the YC Summer 2020 batch.

The “fully remote” Jeeves describes itself as the first “cross country, cross currency” expense management platform. The startup’s offering is currently live in Mexico — its largest market — as well as Colombia, Canada and the U.S., and is currently beta testing in Brazil and Chile. 

Dileep Thazhmon and Sherwin Gandhi founded Jeeves last year under the premise that startups have traditionally had to rely on financial infrastructure that is local and country-specific. For example, a company with employees in Mexico and Colombia would require multiple vendors to cover its finance function in each country — a corporate card in Mexico and one in Colombia and another vendor for cross-border payments.

Image Credits: Left to right: Jeeves co-founders Dileep Thazhmon and Sherwin Gandhi

Jeeves claims that by using its platform, any company can spin up their finance function “in minutes” and get access to 30 days of credit on a true corporate card, noncard payment rails, as well as cross-border payments. Customers can also pay back in multiple currencies, reducing FX (foreign transaction) fees.

“We’re building an all-in-one expense management platform for startups in LatAm and global markets — cash, corporate cards, cross-border — all run on our own infrastructure,” Thazhmon said. 

“We’re really building two things — an infrastructure layer that sits across banking institutions in different countries. And then on top of that, we’re building the customer-, or end user-facing app,” he added. “What gives us the ability to launch in countries much quicker is that we own part of that stack ourselves, versus what most fintechs would do, which is plug into a third-party provider in that region.” 

Image Credits: Jeeves

Indeed, the company has seen rapid early growth. Since launching its private beta last October, Jeeves says it has grown its transaction volume (GTV) by 200x and increased revenue by 900% (albeit from a small base). In May alone, Jeeves says it processed more transaction volume than the entire year to date, and more than doubled its customer base. It says that “hundreds of companies,” including Bitso, Belvo, Justo, Runa, Worky, Zinboe, RobinFood and Muncher, “actively” use Jeeves to manage their local and international spend. On top of that, it says, the startup has a waitlist of more than 5,000 companies — which is part of why the company sought to raise debt and equity.

The shift to remote work globally due to the COVID-19 pandemic has played a large role in why Jeeves has seen so much demand, according to Thazhmon.

“Every company is now becoming a global company, and the service to employees in two different countries requires two different systems,” he said. “And then someone’s got to reconcile that system at the end of the month. This has been a big reason why we’re growing so fast.”

One of Jeeves’ biggest accomplishments so far, Thazhmon said, has been receiving approval to issue cards from its own credit BIN (bank identification number) in Mexico. It can also run SPEI payments directly on its infrastructure. (SPEI is a system developed and operated by Banco de México that allows the general public to make electronic payments.)

“This gives us a lot of flexibility and allows us to offer a truly unique product to our customers,” said Thazhmon, who previously co-founded PowerInbox, a
Battery Ventures-backed MarTech company that he says grew to $40 million in annual revenue in three years.

Jeeves says it will use the fresh capital to onboard new companies to the platform from its waitlist, scale its infrastructure to cover more countries and currencies as well as do some hiring and expand its product line.

A16z General Partner Angela Strange, who is joining Jeeves’ board as part of the investment, is extremely bullish on the startup’s potential.

Strange says she met Thazhmon about a year ago and was immediately intrigued.

“Not only were they working to provide the financial operating system within a country, starting in Mexico, they were designing their software platform to scale across multiple countries,” she said. “Finally — a multicountry/currency expense management & payouts platform, where increasingly companies have employees and operations in multiple countries from the start and can use a single company to manage their financials.”

Strange, who has been investing in Latin America for the past few years, notes that most companies in the region are unable to get a corporate credit card.

“That’s only the tip of the iceberg,” she told TechCrunch. “It’s cumbersome for companies to make bank to bank payouts, handle wires, and they usually also have expenses in the U.S. (and often other countries) so there is also FX. And they manage multiple bank accounts. Not only is paying hard, reconciliation on the backend takes weeks.”

As such, Strange said, with every country having their own bank transfer system, rules around who can issue a credit card, approved payment processors, currencies and bank accounts — payments and expense management across countries can be complex.

Jeeves, according to Strange, “gets as close to the networks/payment rails as possible” since it has its own issuing credit BIN versus needing to connect through legacy players.

Providing an orchestration layer on top of all the rails gives Jeeves the ability “to handle all the payment and reconciliation complexity” so “their customers don’t have to think about it,” she added.

 

Belvo, LatAm’s answer to Plaid, raises $43M to scale its API for financial services

Belvo, a Latin American startup which has built an open finance API platform, announced today it has raised $43 million in a Series A round of funding.

A mix of Silicon Valley and Latin American-based VC firms and angels participated in the financing, including Future Positive, Kibo Ventures, FJ Labs, Kaszek, MAYA Capital, Venture Friends, Rappi co-founder and president Sebastián Mejía, Harsh Sinha, CTO of Wise (formerly Transferwise) and Nubank CEO and founder David Vélez.

Citing Crunchbase data, Belvo believes the round represents the largest Series A ever raised by a Latin American fintech. In May 2020, Belvo raised a $10 million seed round co-led by Silicon Valley’s Founders Fund and Argentina’s Kaszek.

Belvo aims to work with leading fintechs in Latin America, spanning verticals like the neobanks, credit providers and personal finance products Latin Americans use every day.

The startup’s goal with its developer-first API platform that can be used to access and interpret end-user financial data is to build better, more efficient and more inclusive financial products in Latin America. Developers of popular neobank apps, credit providers and personal finance tools use Belvo’s API to connect bank accounts to their apps to unlock the power of open banking.

As TechCrunch Senior Editor Alex Wilhelm explained in this piece last year, Belvo might be considered similar to U.S.-based Plaid, but more attuned to the Latin American market so it can take in a more diverse set of data to better meet the needs of the various markets it serves. 

So while Belvo’s goals are “similar to the overarching goal[s] of Plaid,” co-founder and co-CEO Pablo Viguera told TechCrunch that Belvo is not merely building a banking API business hoping to connect apps to financial accounts. Instead, Belvo wants to build a finance API, which takes in more information than is normally collected by such systems. Latin America is massively underbanked and unbanked so the more data from more sources, the better.

“In essence, we’re pushing for similar outcomes [as Plaid] in terms of when you think about open banking or open finance,” Viguera said. “We’re working to democratize access to financial data and empower end users to port that data, and share that data with whoever they want.”

The company operates under the premise that just because a significant number of the region’s population is underbanked doesn’t mean that they aren’t still financially active. Belvo’s goal is to link all sorts of accounts. For example, Viguera told TechCrunch that some gig economy companies in Latin America are issuing their own cards that allow workers to cash out at small local shops. In time, all those transactions are data that could be linked up using Belvo, casting a far wider net than what we’re used to domestically.

The company’s work to connect banks and non-banks together is key to the company’s goal of allowing “any fintech or any developer to access and interpret user financial data,” according to Viguera.

Viguera and co-CEO Oriol Tintoré founded Belvo in May of 2019, and it was part of Y Combinator’s Winter 2020 batch. Since launching its platform last year, the company says it has built a customer base of more than 60 companies across Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, handling millions of monthly API calls. 

This is important because as Alex noted last year, similar to other players in the API-space, Belvo charges for each API call that its customers use (in this sense, it has a model similar to Twilio’s). 

Image Credits: Co-founders and co-CEOs Oriol Tintore and Pablo Viguera / Belvo

Also, over the past year, Belvo says it expanded its API coverage to over 40 financial institutions, which gives companies the ability to connect to more than 90% of personal and business bank accounts in LatAm, as well as to tax authorities (such as the SAT in Mexico) and gig economy platforms.

“Essentially we take unstructured financial data, which an individual might have outside of a bank such as integrations we have with gig economy platforms such as Uber and Rappi. We can take a driver’s information from their Uber app, which is kind of built like a bank app, and turn it into meaningful bank-like info which third parties can leverage to make assessments as if it’s data coming from a bank,” Viguera explained.

The startup plans to use its new capital to scale its product offering, continue expanding its geographic footprint and double its current headcount of 70. Specifically, Belvo plans to hire more than 50 engineers in Mexico and Brazil by year’s end. It currently has offices in Mexico City, São Paulo and Barcelona. The company also aims to launch its bank-to-bank payment initiation offering in Mexico and Brazil.

Belvo currently operates in Mexico, Colombia and Brazil. 

But it’s seeing “a lot of opportunity” in other markets in Latin America, especially in Chile, Peru and Argentina, Viguera told TechCrunch. “In due course, we will look to pursue expansion there.” 

Fred Blackford, founding partner of Future Positive, believes Belvo represents a “truly transformational opportunity for the region’s financial sector.”

Nicolás Szekasy, co-founder and managing partner of Kaszek, noted that demand for financial services in Latin America is growing at an exponential rate .

“Belvo is developing the infrastructure that will enable both the larger institutions and the emerging generation of younger players to successfully deploy their solutions,” he said. “Oriol, Pablo and the Belvo team have been leading the development of a sophisticated platform that resolves very complex technical challenges, and the company’s exponential growth reflects how it is delivering a product that fits perfectly with the requirements of the market.” 

Brazilian proptech startup QuintoAndar lands $300M at a $4B valuation

Fintech and proptech are two sectors that are seeing exploding growth in Latin America, as financial services and real estate are two categories in particular dire need of innovation in a region.

Brazil’s QuintoAndar, which has developed a real estate marketplace focused on rentals and sales, has seen impressive growth in recent years. And today, the São Paulo-based proptech has announced it has closed on $300 million in a Series E round of funding that values it at an impressive $4 billion.

The round is notable for a few reasons. For one, the valuation – high by any standards but especially for a LatAm company – represents an increase of four times from when QuintoAndar raised a $250 million Series D in September 2019.

It’s also noteworthy who is backing the company. Silicon Valley-based Ribbit Capital led its Series E financing, which also included participation from SoftBank’s LatAm-focused Innovation Fund, LTS, Maverik, Alta Park, an undisclosed US-based asset manager fund with over $2 trillion in AUM, Kaszek Ventures, Dragoneer and Accel partner Kevin Efrusy.

Having backed the likes of Coinbase, Robinhood and CreditKarma, Ribbit Capital has historically focused on early-stage investments in the fintech space. Its bet on QuintoAndar represents clear faith in what the company is building, as well as its confidence in the startup’s plans to branch out from its current model into a one-stop real estate shop that also offers mortgage, title, insurance and escrow services.

The latest round brings QuintoAndar’s total raised since its 2013 inception to $635 million.

Ribbit Capital Partner Nick Huber said Quintoandar has over the years built “a unique and trusted brand in Brazil” for those looking for a place to call home.

“Whether you are looking to buy or to rent, QuintoAndar can support customers through the entire transaction process: from browsing verified inventory to signing the final contracts,” Huber told TechCrunch. “The ability to serve customers’ needs through each phase of life and to do so from start to finish is a unique capability, both in Brazil and around the world.”

QuintoAndar describes itself as an “end-to-end solution for long-term rentals” that, among other things, connects potential tenants to landlords and vice versa. Last year, it expanded also into connecting a home buyers to sellers.

Image Credits: QuintoAndar

TechCrunch spoke with co-founder and CEO Gabriel Braga and he shared details around the growth that has attracted such a bevy of high-profile investors.

Like most other businesses around the world, QuintoAndar braced itself for the worst when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year – especially considering one core piece of its business is to guarantee rents to the landlords on its platform.

“In the beginning, we were afraid of the implications of the crisis but we were able to honor our commitments,” Braga said. “In retrospect, the pandemic was a big test for our business model and it has validated the strength and defensibility of our binsess on the credit side and reinforced our value proposition to tenants and landlords. So after the initial scary moments, we actually felt even more confident in the business that we are building.”

QuintoAndar describes itself as “a distant market leader” with more than 100,000 rentals under management and about 10,000 new rentals per month. Its rental platform is live in 40 cities across Brazil, while its homebuying marketplace is live in 4. Part of its plans with the new capital is to expand into new markets within Brazil, as well as in Latin America as a whole.

The startup claims that, in less than a year, QuintoAndar managed to aggregate the largest inventory among digital transactional platforms. It now offers more than 60,000 properties for sale across Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belho Horizonte and Porto Alegre. To give greater context around the company’s growth of that side of its platform: in its first year of operation, QuintoAndar closed more than 1,000 transactions. It has now surpassed the mark of 8,000 transactions in annualized terms, growing between 50% and 100% quarter over quarter.

As for the rentals side of its business, Braga said QuintoAndar has more than 100,000 rentals under management and is closing about 10,000 new rentals per month. The company is not profitable as it’s focused on growth, although it is unit economics are particularly favorable in certain markets such as Sao Paulo, which is financing some of its growth in other cities, according to Braga.

Now, the 2,000-person company is looking to begin its global expansion with plans to enter the Mexican market later this year. With that, Braga said QuintoAndar is looking to hire “top-tier” talent from all over.

“We want to invest a lot in our product and tech core,” he said. “So we’re trying to bring in more senior people from abroad, on a global basis.”

Some history

CEO Braga and CTO André Penha came up with the idea for QuintoAndar after receiving their MBAs at Stanford University. As many startups do, the company was founded out of Braga’s personal “nightmare” of an experience – in this case, of trying to rent an apartment in Sao Paulo.

The search process, he recalls, was difficult as there was not enough information available online and renters were forced to provide a guarantor, or co-signer, from the same city or pay rent insurance, which Braga described as “very expensive.”

“Overall, I felt it was a very inefficient and fragmented process with no transparency or tech,” Braga told me at the time of the company’s last raise. “There was all this friction and high cost involved, just real tangible problems to solve.”

The concept for QuintoAndar (which can be translated literally to “Fifth Floor” in Portuguese) was born.

“Little by little, we created a platform that consolidated supply and inventory in a uniform way,” Braga said.

The company took the search phase online for the first time, according to Braga. It also eliminated the need for tenants to provide a guarantor, thereby saving them money. On the other side, QuintoAndar also works to help protect the landlord with the guarantee that they will get their rent “on time every month,” Braga said.

It’s been interesting watching the company evolve and grow over time, just as it’s been fascinating seeing the region’s startup scene mature and shine in recent years.