Meet Nickson, the furniture-as-a-service startup that Barack Obama’s ex-financial adviser just backed

Ever toured an apartment and fall in love with the model unit?

You’re not alone. Harvard Business School grad Cameron Johnson is a former institutional real estate investor and Greystar exec turned startup founder that realized that very often, “renters would try to rent the model apartment.”

This got him thinking. People would love to rent a model apartment in a building, and no one likes to move. This spelled opportunity in Johnson’s mind.

So in 2017, he came up with the idea of Nickson, a Dallas-based startup that fully furnishes apartments on demand.

Image Credits: CEO and founder Cameron Johnson / Nickson

“I thought ‘What if you gave people the ability to simply rent the model, or the ability to add everything in their space needs with a few clicks, similar to how a cable modem comes to your house ’ ” CEO Johnson said. “I wondered, ‘Why can’t we do that for everything else?’ ”

But Nickson doesn’t just provide furniture such as beds and sofas, it delivers all the essentials too — from extension cords to pots and pans to silverware to curtain rods. By partnering with a variety of retailers, the startup claims that it allows users “to make their new spaces move-in ready in as little as 3 hours.” 

Users take a style quiz and share apartment layout details. Nickson’s designers create an initial layout based on the dimensions of an apartment, desired functions (such as work from home) and the volume of furnishings based on a person’s lifestyle. Once the layout is complete, Nickson creates a custom design, including all furnishings and home goods. 

Upon signing up, users pay a one-time installation fee for the furniture-as-a-service offering, and then a monthly subscription charge for the duration of a lease — starting at $199 a month for a studio to $500 a month for a 3 bedroom apartment. The startup also offers concierge services such as a household supply starter kit and maid service, as an add-on to its flat monthly subscription.

Nickson is currently only live in the Dallas market, but plans to expand into other cities over the next 12 months, including expanding its beta tests in Austin and Houston. And it’s just raised a $12 million Series A to help it advance on that goal. 

A fund managed by Pendulum Opportunities LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Pendulum Holdings LLC, led the Series A round, which also included participation from Motley Fool Ventures, Revolution’s Rise of the Rest and Backstage Capital. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the global supply chain, leading to delivery delays for consumers. Nickson has purchased items over time that it stores as local inventory, making it even more attractive to renters who don’t want to deal with delays and hunting down furniture and essentials, Johnson said. The convenience Nickson offers led to its user base growing 700% in 2020 compared to the year prior, he added.

Robbie Robinson, co-founder and CEO of Pendulum, said his firm was drawn to invest in Nickson due to a combination of Johnson’s “vision, secular shifts toward renting and subscription consumption and the company’s disruptive business model.” (Robinson is President Barack Obama’s former financial adviser, and recently founded Pendulum to invest $250 million in founding startups of color).

Kabir Ahmed, vice president at Pendulum, added that he believes Nickson’s model is superior to the concept of renting one-off furniture pieces in that it offers an “end-to-end, turnkey solution.”

This seamless experience is highly differentiated and offers a compelling value proposition for the consumer,” he said.

Of course, Nickson is not the only company attempting to turn the stodgy furniture rental industry on its head. Other startups offering similar services as Nickson include Oliver Space, Fernish and The Landing.

But Nickson claims that it stands out from the competition in that it “takes care of everything” beyond furniture (including artwork and toilet wand brushes) and that it can curate space and bring it all in before a renter even shows up.

“No other competitor in this space offers this level of service, detail or turnaround,” Johnson says. “You can literally arrive at your new home with a suitcase and toothbrush, and it’s ready to ‘live in.'”

Yana’s mental health tool for Spanish speakers nears 5 million users

Andrea Campos has struggled with depression since she was eight years old. Over the years, she’s tried all sorts of therapies — from behavioral to pharmacotherapy.

In 2017, when Campos was in her early 20s, she learned to program and created a system to help manage her mental health. It started as a personal project, but as she talked to more people, Campos realized that many others might benefit from the system as well.

So she built an application to provide access to mental health tools for Spanish-speaking people and began testing it with a small group. At first, Campos herself was her own chatbot, texting with users who were tired of dealing with depression.

“During the month, I was pretending I was an app, and would send these people a list of activities they had to complete during the day, such as writing in a gratitude journal, and then asking them how those activities made them feel,” Campos recalls.

Her thinking was that sometimes with depression and anxiety comes “a lot of avoidance,” where people resist potential treatment out of fear.

The results from her small experiment were encouraging. So, Campos set out to conduct a bigger sample of experiments, and raised about $10,000 via a crowdfunding campaign. With that money, she hired a developer to build a chatbot for her app, which was mostly being used via Facebook Messenger.

Then an earthquake hit Mexico City and that developer lost everything — including his home and computer — and had to relocate.

“I was left with nothing,” Campos says. But that developer introduced her to another, who disappeared with his payment, and again, left Campos, “with nothing.”

“I realized at the beginning of 2019, I was going to have to do this by myself,” Campos said. So she used a site that she described as a “Wix for chatbots,” and created one herself.

After experimenting with the app with a sample of 700 people, Campos was even more encouraged and raised an angel round of funding for Yana, the startup behind her app. (Yana is an acronym for “You Are Not Alone.”) By early 2020, with just three months of runway left, she pivoted to create an app with chatbot integration that wasn’t just limited to use via Facebook Messenger.

Campos ended up launching the app more broadly during the same week that her city in Mexico went into quarantine.

Image Credits: Yana

At first, she said, she saw “normal, steady growth.” But then on October 10, 2020, Apple’s App Store highlighted Yana for International Mental Health Day, and the response was overwhelming.

“It was also my birthday so I was at a spa in a nearby town, relaxing, when I started hearing my cell phone go crazy,” Campos recalls. “Everything went nuts. I had to go back to Mexico City because our servers were exploding since they were not used to having that kind of volume.”

As a result of that exposure, Yana went from having around 80,000 users to reaching 1 million users two weeks later. Soon after that, Google highlighted the app as one of best for personal growth in 2020, and that too led to another spike in users. Today, Yana is about to hit the 5 million-user mark and is also announcing it has raised $1.5 million in funding led by Mexico’s ALLVP, which has also invested in the likes of Cornershop, Flink and Nuvocargo.

When the pandemic hit last year, six of Yana’s nine-person team decided to quarantine together in a “startup house” in Cancun to focus on building the company. Earlier this year, the company had raised $315,000 from investors such as 500 Startups, Magma and Hustle Fund. The company had pitched ALLVP, which was intrigued but wanted to wait until it could write a bigger check. 

That time is now, and Yana is now among the top three downloaded apps in Mexico and 12 countries, including Spain, Chile, Ecuador and Venezuela.

With its new capital, Yana is planning to “move away from the depression/anxiety narrative,” according to Campos.

“We want to compete in the wellness space,” she told TechCrunch. “A lot of people were looking for us to deal with crises such as a breakup or a loss but then they didn’t always see a necessity to keep using Yana for longer than the crisis lasted.”

Some of those people would download the app again months later when hit with another crisis.

“We don’t want to be that app anymore,” Campos said. “We want to focus on whole wellness and mental health and transmit something that needs to be built every single day, just like we do with exercise.”

Moving forward, Yana aims to help people with their mental health not just during a crisis but with activities they can do on a daily basis, including a gratitude journal, a mood tracker and meditation — “things that prevent depression and anxiety,” Campos said.

“We want to be a vitamin for our soul, and keeping people mentally healthy on an ongoing basis,” she said. “We also want to include a community inside our application.”

ALLVP’s Federico Antoni is enthusiastic about the startup’s potential. He first met Campos when she was participating in an accelerator program in 2017, and then again recently.

The firm led Yana’s latest round because it “wanted to be on her team.”

“She [Campos] has turned into an amazing leader, and we realized her potential and strength,” he said. “Plus, Yana is an amazing product. When you download it, it’s almost like you can see a soul in there.”

Branch raises $50M to offer bundled auto & home insurance via an API

Branch Insurance, a startup offering bundled home and auto insurance, has raised $50 million in a Series B funding round led by Anthemis Group.

Acrew, Cherry Creek Holdings and existing backers Greycroft, HSCM Bermuda, American Family Ventures, SignalFire, SCOR P&C Ventures, Foundation Capital and Tower IV also participated in the round. With this latest financing, Columbus, Ohio-based Branch has raised $82.5 million in total funding since its 2017 inception.

With so many players in the insurtech space, it can get tough distinguishing the various offerings. Branch claims that it is unique in that it is able to provide customers with “an instant insurance offer” for bundled home and auto insurance “within seconds” using just a few pieces of information.

Co-founder and CEO Steve Lekas began his career at Allstate, where he went on to hold roles in underwriting, technology and product management. He then went on to build Esurance’s first online home insurance business.

But in the back of his mind, Lekas yearned to figure out a way to make insurance more accessible for more people. And so he teamed up with Joe Emison, and Branch was born.

“The industry is structurally flawed and it harms consumers. Complicated policies, rising costs and marketing warfare all contribute to a vicious cycle that results in overpriced insurance,” said Lekas. “We are a full-stack insurance company transforming the way people think about their home and car insurance.”

Branch, he claims, is the only insurance company that he is aware of that can bind insurance through an API, and the only one that can bundle auto and home insurance in a single transaction.

Another way Branch is unique, according to Lekas, is that it can be embedded into the buying experience. In other words, the company has partnered with companies such as Rocket Mortgage and ADT to integrate insurance at the point of sale in their products. For example, if a person is closing on a home, they have the option of purchasing Branch insurance at the same time.

Branch co-founder and CEO Steve Lekas. Photo: Robb McCormick Photography

“Every home or car policy starts with another transaction,” Lekas said. “Insurance is a product that exists only because of the other transaction. It’s never before been possible to embed in that primary purchase before.”

This distribution model means that Branch shells out less to acquire customers and thus, it claims, is able to offer premiums for a lower price than competitors.

“In just two clicks, a consumer can have home and car insurance or just home and we’ll cancel the old insurance on their closing date, and transmit all the data to their existing mortgage,” Lekas said.

Branch also offers its insurance direct-to-consumer and through agencies.

The company plans to use its new capital in part to accelerate its rollout across the U.S. so that it can sign more such partnerships where it can embed its offering. Currently, Branch has more than 30 partnerships of varying sizes, and is “adding more every week” as it launches in more states.

“It’s really hard to move quickly,” Lekas said. “The system is built to make you move slowly. Every state regulator has to approve individually and independently with their own rules.”

Lekas predicts Branch will be available in more than 80% of the U.S. before the year’s out.

Branch has seen increased momentum since its $24 million Series A in July 2020.

Specifically, the startup says it has achieved a 435% growth in its partner channel, 660% growth in active policies and a 734% increase in active premium less than one year after its last raise.

Anthemis Group Partner Ruth Foxe Blader notes that Branch marks her firm’s first investment from its new growth fund.

Blader says she has invested in insurance innovation over the past decade, and is particularly attracted to insurtech businesses that represent three things: significant technology and data science innovation; significant product innovation and significant cultural innovation.

“Branch easily ticks those boxes,” Blader told TechCrunch. “Branch’s products are both embedded and bundled, making them less expensive and more convenient to purchase, and less likely to leave customers with critical protection gaps.”

The startup, she added, effectively combines data science and technology to create “unique, automatic product bundles.”

With what it describes as a “built-for-savings” structure, Branch said it has created connected home discounts as well as programs that reward members for making referrals and practicing safe driving behaviors, for example.

Branch also has formed a nonprofit, SafetyNest, to help those who are un- or underinsured.

Kafene raises $14M to offer buy now, pay later to the subprime consumer

The buy now, pay later frenzy isn’t going anywhere as more consumers seek alternatives to credit cards to fund purchases.

And those purchases aren’t exclusive to luxuries such as Pelotons (ahem, Affirm) or jewelry someone might be treating themselves to online. A new fintech company is out to help consumers finance big-ticket items that are considered more “must have” than “nice to have.” And it’s just raised $14 million in Series A funding to help it advance on that goal.

Neal Desai (former CFO of Octane Lending) and James Schuler (who participated in Y Combinator’s accelerator program as a high schooler) founded New York City-based Kafene in July 2019. The pair’s goal is to promote financial inclusion by meeting the needs of what it describes as the “consumers that are left behind by traditional lenders.”

More specifically, Kafene is focused on helping consumers with credit scores below 650 purchase retail items such as furniture, appliances and electronics with its buy now, pay later (BNPL) model. Consider it an “Affirm for the subprime,” says Desai.

Global Founders Capital and Third Prime Ventures co-led the round, which also included participation from Valar, Company.co, Hermann Capital, Gaingels, Republic Labs, Uncorrelated Ventures and FJ labs.

“Historically, if you could access credit, you could go to the bank or use a credit card,” Third Prime’s Wes Barton told TechCrunch. “But if you had some unexpected expense, and had to miss a payment with the bank, there would be repercussions and you could fall into a debt trap.”

Kafene’s “flexible ownership” model is designed to not let that happen to a consumer. If for some reason, someone has to forfeit on a payment, Kafene comes to pick up the item and the customer is no longer under obligation to pay for it moving forward.

The way it works is that Kafene buys the product from a merchant on a consumers’ behalf and rents it back to them over 12 months. If they make all payments, they own the item. If they make them earlier, they get a “significant” discount, and if they can’t, Kafene reclaims the item and takes the loan loss.

Image Credits: Kafene

It’s a modern take on Rent-A-Center, which charges more money for inferior products, Desai believes.

“This is also a superior product to credit cards, and the size of that market is massive,” Barton said. “We want to take a huge chunk of credit card business in time, and give consumers the flexibility to quit at any point in time, and fly free, if you will.”

Such flexibility, Kafene claims, helps promote financial inclusion by giving a wider range of consumers options to alternative forms of credit at the point of sale.

It also helps people boost their credit scores, according to Desai, because if they buy out of the loan earlier than the 12-month term, their credit score goes up because Kafene reports them as a positive payer.

“In any situation where they don’t steal the item, their credit score improves,” he said. “Even if they end up returning it because they can’t afford it. In the long run, they can have a better credit score to qualify for a traditional loan product.”

Kafene rolled out a beta of its financing product in December of 2019 and then had to pause in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company essentially “hibernated” from March to June 2020 and re-launched out of beta last July.

By October, Kafene stopped all enrollment with merchants because it had more demand that it could handle — largely fueled by more people being financially strained due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2021, the company was handling about $2 million a month in merchandise volume.

With its new capital, Kafene plans to significantly scale its existing lease-to-own financing business nationally, as well as to launch a direct-to-consumer virtual lease card.

In-person work is back, and New Stand just raised $40M to help ease the transition

As more people return to the office over the next few months, companies will have to work harder than ever to make sure the environment is comfortable and inviting.

One company that is out to ease the pain of millions of employees leaving the comfy confines of their homes and losing the convenience of conducting meetings in nice tops and sweatpants has just raised new funding to help it advance on its goals.

New York-based New Stand announced it has raised $40 million in a Series B funding round led by Brookfield Property Group, one of the largest commercial real estate owners in the United States. Existing backers Maywic, Fantail Ventures and Raga Partners also participated in the financing, which brings the company’s total raised to just over $56 million since its 2015 inception.  

New Stand is a clever take on the “newsstand” concept. The startup has built a modern-looking smart vending physical product that can be set up in all sorts of different spots –– from office lobbies to floors of companies within an office building to hotels to college campuses to airports. The company’s first location was at the Union Square subway station in New York City. Over time, New Stand has combined that physical presence with an app that is designed to give people convenience in getting basics (think snacks, books and personal care items such as umbrellas or pain relievers, for example) as well as access to “location-based media.”

On top of that, it wants to partner with companies to offer its platform as a way to communicate internal news in a more fun and engaging manner. The company is making a big push in the office vertical with the launch of its New Stand at Work, a workplace amenity.

So it’s not entirely surprising that Brookfield, one of the biggest commercial landlords in the country, would want to back a company that aims to make tenants and their employees happier.

TechCrunch talked with co-founder and CEO Andrew Deitchman about the new raise and plans for the capital. He earnestly describes New Stand as a “day improvement company” that aims to make people’s days easier and more interesting.

“And we do it by making sure we have basic stuff that people need, but also curating things that we think they would like,” he said. “We have little shops or touch points that are like convenience stores, and we combine that with an app that introduces people to content, and also allows them to interact in other ways to accumulate points and rewards.”

“So what New Stand really is building is a media and technology company, using convenience points as a means of accessing people’s lives and making their days a little bit better,” Deitchman added.

New Stand is working to evolve from being primarily a consumer business to an enterprise one.

“We can take care of basic needs but also engage people in a deeper relationship,” Deitchman said. “If you’re an employer who wants to relate to an employee or if you are a landlord who wants to relate better to your tenants, we can help make that happen.”

The company is planning to use its new capital primarily toward expanding into new spaces, office and otherwise. Currently, it’s in about 20 locations. 

It’s also planning to create “new engaging services and formats” and “grow and densify its distribution.”

In line with its investment, Brookfield Properties said it plans to “further activate” its properties in New York and, ultimately beyond, with New Stand’s offering.

Ben Brown, managing partner and head of the U.S. office in Brookfield’s Real Estate group, notes that prior to this investment, Brookfield had already partnered with New Stand at its flagship property, Brookfield Place New York — both as an amenity for its tenants and as an offering in its own office space for employees.

“On both fronts, New Stand has provided an elevated experience with tangible benefits,” he told TechCrunch. “As one of the largest — if not the largest — commercial real estate owners in the country and world, we have a particular interest in investing in enterprises we ourselves use, see the value in, and can help scale over time.”

Brown said the combination of New Stand’s physical assets and media platform has given Brookfield the opportunity to boost engagement with its tenants’ employees as well as its own, something “all landlords are trying to do.”

“Helping the world’s leading companies attract, retain and motivate their workforces has long been job one for us, and that has only intensified today as firms increasingly look for ways to have the office compete with the home,” he added.

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.” 

Meet Justos, the new Brazilian insurtech that just got backing from the CEOs of 7 unicorns

Here in the U.S. the concept of using driver’s data to decide the cost of auto insurance premiums is not a new one.

But in markets like Brazil, the idea is still considered relatively novel. A new startup called Justos claims it will be the first Brazilian insurer to use drivers’ data to reward those who drive safely by offering “fairer” prices.

And now Justos has raised about $2.8 million in a seed round led by Kaszek, one of the largest and most active VC firms in Latin America. Big Bets also participated in the round along with the CEOs of seven unicorns including Assaf Wand, CEO and co-founder of Hippo Insurance; David Velez, founder and CEO of Nubank; Carlos Garcia, founder and CEO Kavak; Sergio Furio, founder and CEO of Creditas; Patrick Sigris, founder of iFood and Fritz Lanman, CEO of ClassPass. Senior executives from Robinhood, Stripe, Wise, Carta and Capital One also put money in the round.

Serial entrepreneurs Dhaval Chadha, Jorge Soto Moreno and Antonio Molins co-founded Justos, having most recently worked at various Silicon Valley-based companies including ClassPass, Netflix and Airbnb.

“While we have been friends for a while, it was a coincidence that all three of us were thinking about building something new in Latin America,” Chadha said. “We spent two months studying possible paths, talking to people and investors in the United States, Brazil and Mexico, until we came up with the idea of creating an insurance company that can modernize the sector, starting with auto insurance.”

Ultimately, the trio decided that the auto insurance market would be an ideal sector considering that in Brazil, an estimated more than 70% of cars are not insured. 

The process to get insurance in the country, by any accounts, is a slow one. It takes up to 72 hours to receive initial coverage and two weeks to receive the final insurance policy. Insurers also take their time in resolving claims related to car damages and loss due to accidents, the entrepreneurs say. They also charge that pricing is often not fair or transparent.

Justos aims to improve the whole auto insurance process in Brazil by measuring the way people drive to help price their insurance policies. Similar to Root here in the U.S., Justos intends to collect users’ data through their mobile phones so that it can “more accurately and assertively price different types of risk.” This way, the startup claims it can offer plans  that are up to 30% cheaper than traditional plans, and grant discounts each month, according to the driving patterns of the previous month of each customer. 

“We measure how safely people drive using the sensors on their cell phones,” Chadha said. “This allows us to offer cheaper insurance to users who drive well, thereby reducing biases that are inherent in the pricing models used by traditional insurance companies.”

Justos also plans to use artificial intelligence and computerized vision to analyze and process claims more quickly and machine learning for image analysis and to create bots that help accelerate claims processing. 

“We are building a design driven, mobile first and customer experience that aims to revolutionize insurance in Brazil, similar to what Nubank did with banking,” Chadha told TechCrunch. “We will be eliminating any hidden fees, a lot of the small text and insurance specific jargon that is very confusing for customers.”

Justos will offer its product directly to its customers as well as through distribution channels like banks and brokers.

“By going direct to consumer, we are able to acquire users cheaper than our competitors and give back the savings to our users in the form of cheaper prices,” Chadha said.

Customers will be able to buy insurance through Justos’ app, website, or even WhatsApp. For now, the company is only adding potential customers to a waitlist but plans to begin selling policies later this year..

During the pandemic, the auto insurance sector in Brazil declined by 1%, according to Chadha, who believes that indicates “there is latent demand rearing to go once things open up again.”

Justos has a social good component as well. Justos intends to cap its profits and give any leftover revenue back to nonprofit organizations.

The company also has an ambitious goal: to help make insurance become universally accessible around the world and the roads safer in general.

“People will face everyday risks with a greater sense of safety and adventure. Road accidents will reduce drastically as a result of incentives for safer driving, and the streets will be safer,” Chadha said. “People, rather than profits, will become the focus of the insurance industry.”

Justos plans to use its new capital to set up operations, such as forming partnerships with reinsurers and an insurance company for fronting, since it is starting as an MGA (managing general agent).

It’s also working on building out its products such as apps, its back end and internal operations tools as well as designing all its processes for underwriting, claims and finance. Justos’ data science team is also building out its own pricing model. 

The startup will be focused on Brazil, with plans to eventually expand within Latin America, then Iberia and Asia.

Kaszek’s Andy Young said his firm was impressed by the team’s previous experience and passion for what they’re building.

“It’s a huge space, ripe for innovation and this is the type of team that can take it to the next level,” Young told TechCrunch. “The team has taken an approach to building an insurance platform that blends being consumer centric and data driven to produce something that is not only cheaper and rewards safety but as the brand implies in Portuguese, is fairer.”

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.

Wayflyer raises $76M to provide ‘revenue-based’ financing to e-commerce merchants

Wayflyer, a revenue-based financing platform for e-commerce merchants, has raised $76 million in a Series A funding round led by Left Lane Capital.

“Partners” of DST Global, QED Investors, Speedinvest and Zinal Growth — the family office of Guillaume Pousaz (founder of Checkout.com) — also put money in the round. The raise comes just after Wayflyer raised $100 million in debt funding to support its cash advance product, and 14 months after the Dublin, Ireland-based startup launched its first product.

With an e-commerce boom fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, Wayflyer is the latest in a group of startups focused on the space that has attracted investor interest as of late. The company aims to help e-commerce merchants “unlock growth” by giving them access to working capital (from $10,000 up to $20 million) so they can improve cash flow and drive sales. For example, more cash can help these merchants do things like buy more inventory in bulk so they can meet customer demand and save money. 

In a nutshell, Wayflyer uses analytics and sends merchants cash to make inventory purchases or investments in their business. Those merchants then repay Wayflyer using a percentage of their revenue until the money is paid back (plus a fee charged for the cash advance). So essentially, the merchants are using their revenue to get financing, hence the term revenue-based financing. The advantage, Wayflyer says, is that companies make repayments as a percentage of their sales. So if they have a slow month, they will pay back less. So, there’s more flexibility involved than with other mechanisms such as traditional bank loans.

Co-founder Aidan Corbett believes that in a crowded space, Wayflyer’s use of big data gives it an edge over competitors.

Corbett and former VC Jack Pierse spun Wayflyer out of a marketing analytics company that Corbett had also started, called Conjura, in September 2019.

“Jack came to me and said, ‘You should stop using our marketing analytics engine to do these big enterprise SaaS solutions, and instead use them to underwrite e-commerce businesses for short-term finance,’ ” Corbett recalls.

And so he did.

“We just had our heads down and started repurposing the platform for it to be an underwriting platform,” Corbett said. It launched in April 2020, doing about $600,000 in advances at the time. In March of 2021, Wayflyer did about $36 million in advances.

“So, it’s been a pretty aggressive kind of growth,” Corbett said.

Over the past six months alone, the company has seen its business grow 290% as it has deployed over $150 million of funding across 10 markets with a focus on the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia. About 75% of its customers are U.S. based.

Wayflyer plans to use its new capital toward product development and global expansion with the goal of entering “multiple” new markets in the coming months. The company recently opened a sales office in Atlanta, and also has locations in the U.K., the Netherlands and Spain.

To Corbett, the company’s offering is more compelling than buy now, pay later solutions for consumers for example, in that it is funding the merchant directly and able to add services on top of that.

“There’s a lot more opportunity for companies like ourselves to differentiate because essentially, we focus on the merchants. And when we underwrite the merchant by getting data from the merchant, there’s a lot of additional services that you can put in on top,” Corbett explained. “Whereas with buy now, pay later, you get information on the consumer, and there’s not as much room to add additional services on top.”

For example, if a business requests an advance and either is not approved for one, or doesn’t choose to take it, Wayflyer’s analytics platform is free to anybody who signs up to help them optimize their marketing spend.

“This is a critical driver of value for e-commerce businesses. If you can’t acquire customers at a reasonable price, you’re not going to be around very long. And a lot of early-stage e-commerce businesses struggle with that,” Corbett said.

It also can pair up a merchant with a marketing analytics “specialist” to analyze its marketing performance or an inventory “specialist” to look at the current terms and price a business is getting from a supplier.

“Our focus from the very beginning is really supporting the merchants, not just providing them with working capital,” Corbett said.  

Another way the company claims to be different is in how it deploys funds. As mentioned above, merchants can pay the money back at varied terms, depending on how sales are going. The company makes money by charging a principal on advances, and then a “remittance rate” on revenues until the total amount is paid back.

“We tend to be more flexible than competition in this way,” Corbett said. “Also, some competitors will pay invoices on merchants’ behalf or give them a pre-charged card to use on advertising spend,” Corbett said. “We always give cash into a merchant’s account.” 

Wayflyer recently inked an agreement with Adobe Commerce, a partnership it said would provide a new channel to further amplify its growth with the goal of funding 8,000 e-commerce businesses in the first year of the partnership.

For his part, Left Lane Capital Partner Dan Ahrens said that his firm was impressed by Wayflyer’s “nuanced understanding of what will drive value for their clients.”

“The team’s focus, specialization, and deep analytical expertise within the e-commerce market also drives superior underwriting,” he told TechCrunch. “Their explosive growth has not come about by taking on undue risk. We are big believers that their underwriting will only improve with scale, and that Wayflyer will be able to compound its competitive advantages over time.”

As mentioned, this is an increasingly crowded space. Earlier this month, Settle announced it had raised $15 million in a Series A funding round led by Kleiner Perkins to give e-commerce and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies access to non-dilutive capital.