Payment service Toss becomes Korea’s newest unicorn after raising $80M

South Korea has got its third unicorn startup after Viva Republica, the company beyond popular payment app Toss, announced it has raised an $80 million round at a valuation of $1.2 billion.

This new round is led by U.S. firms Kleiner Perkins and Ribbit Capital, both of which cut their first checks for Korea with this deal. Others participating include existing investors Altos Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, Goodwater Capital, KTB Network, Novel, PayPal and Qualcomm Ventures. The deal comes just six months after Viva Republica raised $40 million to accelerate growth, and it takes the company to nearly $200 million raised from investors to date.

Toss was started in 2013 by former dentist SG Lee who grew frustrated by the cumbersome way online payments worked in Korea. Despite the fact that the country has one of the highest smartphone penetrations rates in the world and is a top user of credit cards, the process required more than a dozen steps and came with limits.

“Before Toss, users required five passwords and around 37 clicks to transfer $10. With Toss users need just one password and three steps to transfer up to KRW 500,000 ($430),” Lee said in a past statement.

Working with traditional finance

Today, Viva Republica claims to have 10 million registered users for Toss — that’s 20 percent of Korea’s 50 million population — while it says that it is “on track” to reach a $18 billion run-rate for transactions in 2018.

The app began as Venmo -style payments, but in recent years it has added more advanced features focused around financial products. Toss users can now access and manage credit, loans, insurance, investment and more from 25 financial service providers, including banks.

Fintech startups are ‘rip it out and start again’ in the West –such as Europe’s challenger banks — but, in Asia, the approach is more collaborative and assistive. A numbe of startups have found a sweet spot in between banks and consumers, helping to match the two selectively and intelligently. In Toss’s case, essentially it acts as a funnel to help traditional banks find and vet customers for services. Thus, Toss is graduating from a peer-to-peer payment service into a banking gateway.

“Korea is a top 10 global economy, but no there’s no Mint or Credit Karma to help people save and spend money smartly,” Lee told TechCrunch in an interview. “We saw the same deep problems we need to solve [as the U.S.] so we’re just digging in.”

“We want to help financial institutions to build on top of Toss… we’re kind of building an Amazon for the financial services industry,” he added. “We try to aggregate all those activities, covering saving accounts, loan products, insurance etc.”

Former dentist SG Lee started Toss in 2013.

Lee said the plan for the new money is to go deeper in Korea by advancing the tech beyond Toss, adding more users and — on the supply side — partnering with more companies to offer financial products.

There’s plenty of competition. Startups like PeopleFund focus squarely on financial products, while Kakao, Korea’s largest messaging platform, has a dedicated fintech division — KakaoPay — which rivals Toss on both payment and financial services. It also counts the mighty Alibaba in its corner courtesy of a $200 million investment from its Ant Financial affiliate.

Alibaba and Tencent tend to move in pairs as opposites, with one naturally gravitating to the rivals of the other’s investees as recently happened in the Philippines. It’s tricky in Korea, though. Tencent is caught in limbo since it is a long-standing Kakao backer. But might the Ant Financial deal spur Tencent into working with Toss?

Lee said his company has a “good relationship” with Tencent, including the occasional home/away visits, but there’s nothing more to it right now. That’s intriguing.

Overseas expansion plans

Also of interest is future plans for the business now that it is taking on significantly more capital from investors who, even with the most patient money out there, eventually need a return on their investment.

Lee is adamant that he won’t sell, despite Viva Republica increasingly looking like an ideal entry point for a payment or finance company that has missed the Korean market and wants in now.

He said that there are plans to do an IPO “at some point,” but a more immediate focus is the opportunity to expand overseas.

When Toss raised a PayPal-led $48 million Series C 18 months ago, Lee told TechCrunch that he was beginning to cast his eyes on opportunities in Southeast Asia, the region of over 650 million consumers, and that’s likely to see definitive action next year. The Viva Republica CEO said that Vietnam could be a first overseas launchpad for Toss.

“We’re thinking seriously about going beyond Korea because sooner or later we will hire saturation point,” Lee said. “We think Vietnam is quite promising. We’ve talked to potential partners and are currently articulating ideas and strategy materialized next year.

“We already have a very successful playbook, we know how to scale among users,” Lee added.

While the plan is still being put together, Lee suggested that Viva Republica would take its time expanding across Southeast Asia, where six distinct countries account for the majority of the region’s population. So, rather than rapidly expanding Toss across those markets, he indicated that a more deliberate, country-by-country launch could be the strategy with Vietnam kicking things off in 2019.

The Toss team at HQ in Seoul, Korea

Korea rising

Toss’s entry into the unicorn club — a vaunted collection of private tech companies valued at $1 billion or more — comes weeks after Coupang, Korea’s top e-commerce company, raised $2 billion at a valuation of $9 billion.

While that Coupang round came from the SoftBank Vision Fund — a source of capital that is threatening to become tainted given its links to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — it does represent the first time that a Korea-based company has joined the $100 billion mega-fund’s portfolio.

Some milestones can be dismissed as frivolous, but these two coming so close together are a signal of increased awareness of the potential of Korea as a startup destination by investors outside of the country.

While Lee admitted that the unicorn valuation “doesn’t change a lot” in daily terms for his business, he did admit that he has seen the landscape shift for Korea’s startup ecosystem — which has only two other privately-held unicorns: Coupang and Yello Mobile.

“More and more global VCs are aware that South Korea is a really good opportunity to do a startup. It is getting easier for our fellow entrepreneurs to pitch and get access to global funds,” he said, adding that Korea’s top 25 cities have a cumulative population (25 million) that matches America’s top 25.

Despite that potential, Korea has tended to focus on its ‘chaebol’ giants like Samsung — which accounts for a double-digital percentage of the national economy — LG, Hyundai and SK. That means a lot of potential startup talent, both founders and employees, is locked up in secure corporate jobs. Throw in the conservative tradition of family expectations, which can make it hard for children to justify leaving the safety of a big company, and it is perhaps no wonder that Korea has relatively fewer startups compared to other economies of comparable size.

But that is changing.

Coupang has been one of the highest profile examples to follow, alongside the (now public) Kakao business. But with Viva Republica, Toss and a charismatic dentist-turned-founder, another startup story is being written and that could just inspire a future generation of entrepreneurs to rise up and be counted in South Korea.

TransferWise keeps growing money transfers despite global turbulence

You don’t have to follow the financial technology industry or work with developers in faraway lands to know TransferWise, arguably the world’s leading peer-to-peer money-transferring startup. Thanks to its presence in more than 70 countries, low-cost rates for moving money internationally and, of course, its famous “nothing to hide” PR campaign that featured its semi-naked employees running through the streets of London and New York, TransferWise has become one of the world’s most recognizable fintech brands. Along the way, the company helped usher in the age of the rebel-fintech adolescent startup that could compete and win against dusty incumbents on the basis of transparency, value, technology and, perhaps most importantly, moxy.

But today, the macroeconomic, business and political conditions that served as the feedstock to co-founders Kristo Käärman and Taavet Hinrikus when they launched TransferWise are ancient history. Can it keep scaling amidst heightened trade tensions, the unfortunate rise of xenophobia and capital controls? Will it continue to grow profits in the face of competition from other well-funded fintech startups and incumbents that look less dusty? Does the company, which has recently launched important partnerships, a revamped “borderless” business offering and a Mastercard debit card, have aspirations to provide other financial services? And, why isn’t TransferWise public? In the interview below, CEO Käärman addresses these questions head-on. In doing so, the Estonian native makes the case for his company’s future as a trusted partner for its dedicated (and growing) customer base.

Gregg Schoenberg: It’s good to connect, Kristo. I recently took a look at your financials, which show that despite your fairly large size, you’re still growing at a very fast pace.

Kristo Käärman: Yes, things are going very well. Tracking back to the very early days when we started, our hypothesis was that we can service customers about 10 times cheaper than banks. That was really proven out about two years ago when we reached break-even, which is an important proof point: tech that’s paying for itself. It’s not paid for with investors.

GS: So it actually works.

KK: Yes, this thing actually works. In fact, in our original hypothesis, we thought that we could probably do our biggest trade routes for 0.5 percent in fees. We’ve now revised this and are now operating at 0.3 percent in our largest routes.

GS: I assume that’s all in? Because TransferWise always uses the mid-market or spot rate.

KK: Yes, and from the beginning, we’ve taken the approach that we never hide anything in the spread.

GS: Before we leave the topic of your financials, is there any color that you would care to give on how things are going subsequent to when you reported your numbers?

KK: Things are going in the same direction, which is consistent with the mission of the company: Grow the volume and the customer base, which gives us more scale to enable us to charge skinnier and skinnier margins.

GS: Taavet has said that he knows the moment when TransferWise’s transaction volumes will surpass Western Union’s. When is that?

KK: We’re a little bit behind Western Union, but give us a few years.  

What’s more powerful? Anti-trade factions or the natural forces leading us to become more global?

GS: So it won’t be in 2019?

KK: It might be, but I doubt it. Actually, you can kind of work it out, because Western Union is a public company and their volumes aren’t really growing very much. Today, our volumes are still smaller than Western Union’s. Then again, Western Union’s volumes are not very big compared to Citibank’s or HSBC’s.

GS: Speaking of volume, do you disclose your biggest foreign exchange (FX) crosses? I couldn’t find them on your site.

KK: It’s not disclosed, but we make no secret about this either. Let me also preface this by saying that whenever we’re in the U.S., everyone’s brain immediately goes to U.S. to Mexico. But it’s not the biggest channel by far.

GS: Is dollar-peso high on the list?

KK: Definitely, but the volumes there are much smaller. Our biggest volumes are in between the large developed countries. So you’ve got pound-euro, euro-pound, euro-dollar, pound-dollar, dollar-euro. That’s the biggest triangle. Then you’ve got Australia, Canada, Switzerland, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, etc.

GS: On that note, how big of a concern is it to when you see a weakening of overall relations between the U.S. and Mexico and China and the Brexit saga? To me, TransferWise has always been predicated on more frictionless, cross-border commerce. As you know, geopolitical forces are reversing those trends.

KK: Certainly, if everyone decided that they weren’t going to trade in other currencies, there wouldn’t be a need for us. And I appreciate what you’re describing in terms of the public narrative that’s the intent of some factions. Whenever I get asked about trade tensions, I wonder, what’s more powerful? Anti-trade factions or the natural forces leading us to become more global? Technology is one of those forces. Because it’s very hard these days to be a local tech business. So while not every future business will be a tech business, most will either be tech or have a lot more tech elements, which are naturally more global.

TransferWise’s borderless account mobile card

GS: You’re saying that the global game of tariff-chicken and overall decline in immigration between certain major countries isn’t on your CEO headache list and that they haven’t impacted flows?

KK: No and no. Here’s a practical example: China has put into place capital controls, preventing residents from taking more than $50,000 U.S. dollars per year out of the country. As a result, they have already closed down the country from some aspects of money movement. I might disagree with that, but it’s their right.

GS: That sounds like it can create quite a headache for you guys.

KK: It’s a bit of a headache for us, but we’re not that worried about compliance requirements. We just won’t bother with the Chinese market. I mean, we’re operating in so many countries around the world. It’s business as usual for us.

GS: Is a global recession and/or a global shock higher up your list?

KK: I’ll answer that question by telling you about the month of the Brexit vote, which was an outsized month for us in terms of volumes.

GS: High volume?

KK: Yes, incredibly high volume, but we didn’t market anything and we didn’t do anything. In fact, we closed down the service. Actually, you’ll appreciate this as a Wall Street guy

GS: Ex.

KK: Ha, my apologies. So a couple of days before the vote happened, we knew that whichever way the vote would go, there was going to be volatility that night, and when volatility happens, the price rises, the smarter banks make a lot of money, which is usually not the case for consumers.

GS: Of course.

KK: A few days beforehand, we told our customers that a storm is coming, and that if they needed to move money between pound and euro or pound and something else, do it in the next 24 hours because we’re going to shut things down.

GS: You gave people fair warning.

KK: Yes, but we were actually very stressed on the day we put out the notice. Would people accuse us of crippling the service? Instead, people started thinking about how exchange rates were going to move. It ended up going really well and earned us kudos when things calmed down.

GS: What you’re saying is that in a recession, which will likely accompany global freak-outs, you’ll protect your customers. But what you’re also saying is that volatility can be a good thing from the standpoint of trade flows going higher.

KK: Yes, but I don’t like a recession.

There are cases where people who can transact internationally can switch from PayPal to us. If they can, they’re jubilant.

GS: Of course not. But some of the criticism hurled at TransferWise is that it’s a great service for when the weather is nice. And while large institutions charge too much for FX when times are good, in periods of volatility, they have more tools to manage risk and ease volatility.

KK: In financial services, risk is expensive, and if we’re building a product where margins are getting thinner and thinner — and we think they can get close to zero — it means that we see zero risk involved in it. So everything that we do is designed in a way that would take as little risk as possible. And I think you’re referring to mostly FX exposure, which is one of the types of risk that emerges if you don’t have balance on both sides.

GS: Right.

KK: Then you either leave some people waiting for a little bit until you can match it out somehow on the market, or you’re willing to cover that position until you’re able to take it off.

GS: Yes.

KK: So your assumption is correct, and it can be worth it to make payments instant by taking a very tiny bit of a position. We’ve comfortably managed that. I can’t disclose the numbers, but you’d be surprised how small that position is compared to our volumes. Now, in the early days, when we were running the company on my money and Taavet’s, we had no way to put up capital to facilitate transfers. But we had a trick we used then, because we often had more transfers coming in from, say pounds to euros than from euros to pounds.

GS: A big mismatch.

KK: We basically made a very large limit on the euro side — I think you could transfer like 50,000 euros at a single time — and a smaller limit on the pound side, so you could only transfer 3.000 pounds.

GS: Is that something that you would still do if a mismatch got bad enough?

KK: We haven’t done this now for five or six years, but it’s an idea to create a balance synthetically.

GS: Let’s talk about where the business is headed. I’ve seen a number of announcements that you guys have made. On one hand, you’ve hooked up with BCPE, and have deals in place with some challenger banks to help them facilitate FX transactions. These partnerships can enhance your volumes and take you one step closer to becoming the Amazon of FX for retail. But you also now offer a “borderless” multi-currency account for people and businesses that can be linked to a Mastercard debit card, which seems to constitute an expansion of your relationship with some customers.

KK: In terms of integrations with the customers of our banking partners, they now see how much they’re actually paying for a transfer. Plus, they get the same pricing as they would on TransferWise but with greater transparency.

GS: You’re trading margin for dollars, right? Because you have to share the fees with partners like BPCE, but that’s okay because they’re bringing you lots of customers.

KK: Yes, but they also share in the cost. In terms of the debit card, it comes from two ideas. Think of an individual customer who often sends money to their own account abroad, or to their family. Why do they do this? The answer is that they probably have a student loan or a mortgage to pay back at home.

GS: Just like you did.

KK: Right. So we asked ourselves, why don’t we make it easier for our customers to do it directly? Avoid this hop from their bank in the U.S. to TransferWise, then from TransferWise to their bank in the U.K. and then from their bank in the U.K. to pay the mortgage. Why don’t we let them do it from within TransferWise? Because we actually have the payments infrastructure in 70 countries.

GS: Let’s talk about your small business customers specifically.

KK: From the beginning, we’ve always accepted businesses as users. Over time, maybe the small business side has gotten more focus because it’s a little trickier and it needs more features. Specifically, while freelancers and businesses have always been very happy to use TransferWise to pay their suppliers, they still have an issue when they get paid, or when they invoice their customers.

GS: Can you give me an example?

KK: Let’s take a Swedish furniture maker, when they sell their beautiful tables in the U.S. like the one we’re sitting at. That company would put their Swedish account number on the invoice, and then depending on how bold they are, they would ask you to pay it in either Swedish krona or in U.S. dollars. Either way, one of the banks is going to do that conversion, while the customer is going to pay three or four percent of the invoice value. So now, with the borderless account, the furniture maker can hold the balance in different currencies.

GS: That’s helpful, but not unique.

KK: It’s not exciting. HSBC has been able to do this for decades. But what they also get is a local account number in many countries, eventually in 40 countries. So now, they put their TransferWise account number on the invoice and it gets paid as a local business in the U.S.

GS: So you’re not trying to compete against domestic-oriented banks, or for that matter, even PayPal. It’s just an outgrowth of who your clients are that you offer this.

KK: That’s fair, but I think we’ll overlap with PayPal a little bit. There are cases where people who can transact internationally can switch from PayPal to us. If they can, they’re jubilant.

I think the journey of money could be something similar to email.

GS: Well, they like your fees, right?

KK: Yes, exactly. On a related point, the card is a way to give people access to that money that they have in the borderless account. So the thought process wasn’t to do a bank and start with a card. The thought process was to make it easier to facilitate international lives and international flows within the borderless account.

GS: You can’t even pay interest on that cash, because you’re not a bank.

KK: Correct.

GS: Taavet likes to give interesting quotes. One was, “We want to be as cheap as email one day.” As we all know, email is free. We also all know that when something is free, you’re the customer. It’s true in search and in trading stocks. With this in mind, have you been approached yet to sell your data?

KK: No one’s ever approached me on data, and yes, we would like to be as cheap as email one day. Actually, I think the journey of money could be something similar to email. But to be honest, my visibility goes from being able to move from a 0.5 percent charge to a 0.3 percent charge. I also think I know how to get from 0.3 percent to 0.2 percent. But going from 0.2 percent to 0.1 percent is going to be really hard, I can tell you that now. And going from 0.1 percent to 0, that I don’t have an answer for.

TransferWise’s Mastercard debit card

GS: If you want to remain transparent, it will be tough. I mean, you guys used to parade through London without your clothes on to make the point that there’s no secret to how you earn money.

KK: Well, I don’t know if we need to get to zero cost; maybe 0.1 percent is completely fine. But if some people want zero for some reason, then we could also transparently subsidize it from something else that they are willing to pay for, or maybe someone else is willing to pay for them.

GS: Let’s talk about the future, then. Why aren’t you public?

KK: But, why?

GS: To do acquisitions, motivate employees, raise capital. There are all sorts of reasons why it could make sense for a growing, diversified company like TransferWise. I guess you’ve dipped your toe in those waters a little on the debt side, and I recognize that being public isn’t a walk in the park. Still, I’m sure you’re well aware that some megafund VC out there might one day pump mounds of equity into a competitor.

KK: It’s a fair and relevant question, and we do want to be pragmatic about this. So the first question we’ve asked ourselves is: Do our customers care if we’re a public company or not? The answer is that they don’t care too much. Then, we’ve asked ourselves whether it will enable us to do more. Of course, being public probably makes our capital cheaper, but we’re not really capital-intensive. You’re right that we might need that currency to make acquisitions—

Everyone had to create something so that they could live.

GS: —But I understand that it reduces your flexibility and long-term planning a lot.

KK: Regarding a fund that would put a huge amount of money into a competitor, let’s say a half a billion dollars, for example. I think if it was important, I should’ve done this already, but we haven’t. Plus, in order to deploy 500 million pounds, our customers are going to be paying interest on this, eventually. So we’d have to have a bloody good place to deploy that kind of capital.

GS: To close, I want to ask you about Estonia, because I’ve never asked an Estonian this question: Your small nation has hatched Skype, Pipedrive and Taxify in addition to TransferWise. What’s in the water in your home country? Because not all former Soviet republics have had Estonia’s success. And while Israel may be known as the startup nation, I think Estonia could also lay claim to that title.

KK: That’s a three-hour discussion by itself. I’ll say this: When I was a kid, the economy didn’t matter for people; independence mattered. And after having another country rule over you for 50 years, against your will, you don’t really care about how you’re going to eat next month.

GS: And then the Soviet Union collapsed.

KK: Which resulted in half the population basically becoming unemployed. Plus, we didn’t have an industry that was useful for putting food on the table or making a living at that time. Everyone had to create something so that they could live.

GS: You’re saying that it was a combination of this fierce independent streak that was embedded into Estonia’s DNA combined with the lack of industry to rely on.

KK: Yes. It’s called entrepreneurship.

GS: Ha, well in your case, it was perhaps a gift. Thanks for your time, Kristo, and great luck.

KK: Thank you, Gregg.

Salesforce doubles down on Japan with dedicated $100M fund

It’s been a good week for Japanese startups. Fresh from Google making a rare investment in the country when it backed AI startup Abeja, so Salesforce — another U.S. tech titan — has announced a $100 million fund for enterprise startups in Japan.

The Japan Trailblazer Fund is Salesforce Venture’s first local fund in Asia. The firm’s VC arm has backed 40 startups in Japan since 2011, that’s a fractional of its portfolio of over 275 startups. While, at $100 million, the Japan fund is also a small part of the overall investment thesis which has seen Salesforce Ventures plow over $1 billion into companies worldwide.

Nevertheless, the dedicated focus on Japan is positive news for the country, which has struggled to attract overseas investors despite running the world’s third-largest economy based on GDP. For Salesforce, Japan’s public cloud services market is expected to increase more than two-fold to reach $13 billion by 2022, according to figures from IDC.

Salesforce Ventures’ existing portfolio includes startups like accounting service Freee, which raised $60 million in August, and contact management business Sansan, which this week closed $26.5 million for expansion into Southeast Asia.

Teen debit card Current now acts like a real bank account

Current, the app-controlled teen debit card that’s managed by parents, is starting to look more like a bank. Today, the startup announced it’s now adding to its debit account for teens support for routing and account numbers. That means working teens will be able to direct-deposit to their Current account their paychecks from after-school and summer jobs, then use the Visa debit card when they need to make purchases — including when shopping online.

The company first launched its debit card and app for teens and parents last year, with the goal of giving parents a more modern way to dole out allowances and reward their kids for household chores.

Through the app, parents can set chores, transfer funds and track their child’s spending. They can also set limits on how the money can be used, including restrictions on the amount that can be pulled out of an ATM as well as ways to block spending by category — like blocking purchases at bars or airlines, for example.

Meanwhile, by offering the funds on a debit card, teens get a sense of autonomy as well as a way to practice money management and financial discipline.

Now, the company wants to better serve its teenaged users who are working outside the home.

Today, traditional banks will offer accounts to teens in some cases — like if they have a recurring deposit from an employer, for example. But Current won’t have the same restrictions, the company says. Teens who are earning money on their own — but not necessarily on a recurring schedule — can opt for Current instead.

“We have added these features in response to demand from our customers. As teens mature they find ways to earn money, with this generation more likely to begin at a younger age, and to start their own business or work in the gig economy,” said Current founder and CEO Stuart Sopp. “The ‘hustle’ generation needs a way to deposit their earnings directly into their account, and pay and receive payment from e-commerce and advertising platforms,” he added.

The launch of account and routing numbers follows Current’s recent addition of instant transfers, which allows parents to immediately fund teens’ accounts without a wait or any extra fees.

Soon, the company says it will add support for mobile check deposit, too.

The startup charges parents a $36 annual subscription for its service. It competes with other teen-focused solutions in the fintech space, including Greenlight Financial and those from traditional banks.

To date, Current has grown to 240,000 users – up 20% from the 200,000 mark it hit back in September. Its adult user base ranges from young parents in their 30’s up to grandparents, it says, while the teens and young adult users range from 13 up to college students in their 20’s.

Current is backed by $10 million from QED Investors, Cota Capital, Fifth Third Capital and others.

 

Experian leads $10M investment in Southeast Asia fintech startup Jirnexu

Consumer credit giant Experian is continuing to back Asian fintech startups after it led a $10 million investment in Southeast Asia’s Jirnexu .

Jirnexu, which is headquartered in Kuala Lumpur, operates financial comparison services in Malaysia and Indonesia. Those services aggregate offerings and deals from banks and financial services companies, effectively acting as a user acquisition channel for reaching new audiences and customers. This round is a follow-on to Jirnexu’s $11 million Series B which closed in May and was led by SBI, which was the other investor in this extension. This new money takes the startup to $28 million from investors to date.

The deal marks the third investment in Asian fintech for Experian, which is based in London and valued at £17.8 billion, or $22.6 billion. The firm previously backed India’s Bankbazaar and Singapore-based C88.

As you’d expect, those deals include strategic relationships. In the case of Jirnexu, Experian said it would help with “improved performance in demand generation, better eligibility matching through analytics and more seamless consumer experiences.”

There may yet be more deals involving Experian based on comments from the firm’s Asia Pacific CEO, Ben Elliott, made earlier this year.

“Five or six years ago, we started to think about how we solve some bigger problems rather than just being a stoic software company. We’re looking at organizations that we think are either disruptive in the market where we have a role to play, or those that are building into something we think we can grow with,” Elliot told TechCrunch in an interview in July.

A recent Google report forecast that Southeast Asia’s digital economy will triple in size to reach $240 billion by 2025 and Experian is far from the only one keen to get into the future of finance in the region. Ride-hailing giants Grab and Go-Jek are building their own payment and financial services, while China’s Tencent and Alibaba are actively investing in the region, too. Just last week, for example, Tencent finalized a deal that sees it lead a $215 million investment in Voyager in the Philippines.

NEA spinout NewView Capital raises $1.35B for its debut growth fund

Companies are staying private longer and longer and New Enterprise Associates (NEA) has a new plan to combat the negative implications of the trend. The storied venture capital firm has invested in a spinout fund called NewView Capital and sold 31 of its late-stage portfolio companies to the effort.

Former NEA general partner Ravi Viswanathan is leading the fund, which today announced a $1.35 billion pool of capital to invest in growth-stage companies across industries and support the large cohort of former NEA investments now under its purvue. Among the companies purchased by NewView from NEA are 23andMe, Acquia, Canopy, Duolingo, Forter and GumGum.

The secondary deal relieves some of the pressure on NEA to provide liquidity to the investors in its older funds, known as limited partners (LPs), without encouraging its portfolio companies to exit before they’re ready. Consumer genetics company 23andMe, for example, was founded in 2006; NEA has been among its investors since 2007, per PitchBook. It typically takes between five and eight years for a VC-backed startup to be acquired or to pursue an initial public offering, making 12-year-old 23andMe long overdue for an exit.

“There’s a lot of congestion on the road to liquidity,” NEA managing general partner Scott Sandell said in a statement. “Market dynamics are compelling companies to stay private longer, which creates growing demand for follow-on dollars and stretches investor holding periods to a decade or more.”

Sandell has led NEA since the mid-1990s. Viswanathan joined him in 2004 and has co-lead the firm’s growth equity investment practice for several years. He’s been focused on the NewView spinout since the beginning of 2018.

“We are providing liquidity to a set of companies that would require several years longer to get liquidity,” Viswanathan told TechCrunch. “It’s a block sale that has never really been done and it’s a highly curated basket … There have been GP restructurings in the past; that’s not this. There have also been lots of one-off purchases; that’s not what this is either. This is really a strategic spin-off of a curated set of companies done at scale.”

NEA, founded in 1977, is known for its investments in Snap, Jet and more recently, The Wing, Opendoor and Casper. The multi-stage investor wrapped its 16th growth fund in 2017 on $3.3 billion.

The firm has been making strategic moves over the last several years to manage changes in the VC market exacerbated by SoftBank’s nearly $100 billion Vision Fund. In 2015, for example, NEA raised its first opportunity fund in addition to a multi-billion flagship vehicle so it could make follow-on investments in its buzziest companies. Doing that gave it the flexibility to pay a bit more for the swelling late-stage valuations some of its best investments had conjured up. The firm was also one of the first to raise a “mega-fund,” or a fund larger than $1 billion, in 2000.

Since then, funds have only become larger and companies more expensive. NEA’s latest decision to separate some of its investments may be especially wise as many are predicting an imminent turn in the venture market.

Joining Viswanathan at Burlingame-based NewView as operating partners are Tim Connor, a former NEA executive-in-residence; and former SigFig chief product officer David Yoo. Prashant Gangwal, the director of finance at SharesPost, joins as chief financial officer and chief operating officer. 

NewView’s LPs include Goldman Sachs and Hamilton Lane.

The economics and tradeoffs of ad-funded smart city tech

In order to have innovative smart city applications, cities first need to build out the connected infrastructure, which can be a costly, lengthy, and politicized process. Third-parties are helping build infrastructure at no cost to cities by paying for projects entirely through advertising placements on the new equipment. I try to dig into the economics of ad-funded smart city projects to better understand what types of infrastructure can be built under an ad-funded model, the benefits the strategy provides to cities, and the non-obvious costs cities have to consider.

Consider this an ongoing discussion about Urban Tech, its intersection with regulation, issues of public service, and other complexities that people have full PHDs on. I’m just a bitter, born-and-bred New Yorker trying to figure out why I’ve been stuck in between subway stops for the last 15 minutes, so please reach out with your take on any of these thoughts: @Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com.

Using ads to fund smart city infrastructure at no cost to cities

When we talk about “Smart Cities”, we tend to focus on these long-term utopian visions of perfectly clean, efficient, IoT-connected cities that adjust to our environment, our movements, and our every desire. Anyone who spent hours waiting for transit the last time the weather turned south can tell you that we’ve got a long way to go.

But before cities can have the snazzy applications that do things like adjust infrastructure based on real-time conditions, cities first need to build out the platform and technology-base that applications can be built on, as McKinsey’s Global Institute explained in an in-depth report released earlier this summer. This means building out the network of sensors, connected devices and infrastructure needed to track city data. 

However, reaching the technological base needed for data gathering and smart communication means building out hard physical infrastructure, which can cost cities a ton and can take forever when dealing with politics and government processes.

Many cities are also dealing with well-documented infrastructure crises. And with limited budgets, local governments need to spend public funds on important things like roads, schools, healthcare and nonsensical sports stadiums which are pretty much never profitable for cities (I’m a huge fan of baseball but I’m not a fan of how we fund stadiums here in the states).

As city infrastructure has become increasingly tech-enabled and digitized, an interesting financing solution has opened up in which smart city infrastructure projects are built by third-parties at no cost to the city and are instead paid for entirely through digital advertising placed on the new infrastructure. 

I know – the idea of a city built on ad-revenue brings back soul-sucking Orwellian images of corporate overlords and logo-paved streets straight out of Blade Runner or Wall-E. Luckily for us, based on our discussions with developers of ad-funded smart city projects, it seems clear that the economics of an ad-funded model only really work for certain types of hard infrastructure with specific attributes – meaning we may be spared from fire hydrants brought to us by Mountain Dew.

While many factors influence the viability of a project, smart infrastructure projects seem to need two attributes in particular for an ad-funded model to make sense. First, the infrastructure has to be something that citizens will engage – and engage a lot – with. You can’t throw a screen onto any object and expect that people will interact with it for more than 3 seconds or that brands will be willing to pay to throw their taglines on it. The infrastructure has to support effective advertising.  

Second, the investment has to be cost-effective, meaning the infrastructure can only cost so much. A third-party that’s willing to build the infrastructure has to believe they have a realistic chance of generating enough ad-revenue to cover the costs of the projects, and likely an amount above that which could lead to a reasonable return. For example, it seems unlikely you’d find someone willing to build a new bridge, front all the costs, and try to fund it through ad-revenue.

When is ad-funding feasible? A case study on kiosks and LinkNYC

A LinkNYC kiosk enabling access to the internet in New York on Saturday, February 20, 2016. Over 7500 kiosks are to be installed replacing stand alone pay phone kiosks providing free wi-fi, internet access via a touch screen, phone charging and free phone calls. The system is to be supported by advertising running on the sides of the kiosks. ( Richard B. Levine) (Photo by Richard Levine/Corbis via Getty Images)

To get a better understanding of the types of smart city hardware that might actually make sense for an ad-funded model, we can look at the engagement levels and cost structures of smart kiosks, and in particular, the LinkNYC project. Smart kiosks – which provide free WiFi, connectivity and real-time services to citizens – have been leading examples of ad-funded smart city projects. Innovative companies like Intersection (developers of the LinkNYC project), SmartLink, IKE, Soofa, and others have been helping cities build out kiosk networks at little-to-no cost to local governments.

LinkNYC provides public access to much of its data on the New York City Open-Data website. Using some back-of-the-envelope math and a hefty number of assumptions, we can try to get to a very rough range of where cost and engagement metrics generally have to fall for an ad-funded model to make sense.

To try and retrace considerations for the developers’ investment decision, let’s first look at the terms of the deal signed with New York back in 2014. The agreement called for a 12-year franchise period, during which at least 7,500 Link kiosks would be deployed across the city in the first eight years at an expected project cost of more than $200 million. As part of its solicitation, the city also required the developers to pay the greater of either a minimum annual payment of at least $17.5 million or 50 percent of gross revenues.

Let’s start with the cost side – based on an estimated project cost of around $200 million for at least 7,500 Links, we can get to an estimated cost per unit of $25,000 – $30,000. It’s important to note that this only accounts for the install costs, as we don’t have data around the other cost buckets that the developers would also be on the hook for, such as maintenance, utility and financing costs.

Source: LinkNYC, NYC.gov, NYCOpenData

Turning to engagement and ad-revenue – let’s assume that the developers signed the deal with the expectations that they could at least breakeven – covering the install costs of the project and minimum payments to the city. And for simplicity, let’s assume that the 7,500 links were going to be deployed at a steady pace of 937-938 units per year (though in actuality the install cadence has been different). In order for the project to breakeven over the 12-year deal period, developers would have to believe each kiosk could generate around $6,400 in annual ad-revenue (undiscounted). 

Source: LinkNYC, NYC.gov, NYCOpenData

The reason the kiosks can generate this revenue (and in reality a lot more) is because they have significant engagement from users. There are currently around 1,750 Links currently deployed across New York. As of November 18th, LinkNYC had over 720,000 weekly subscribers or around 410 weekly subscribers per Link. The kiosks also saw an average of 18 million sessions per week, or 20-25 weekly sessions per subscriber, or around 10,200 weekly sessions per kiosk (seasonality might even make this estimate too low). 

And when citizens do use the kiosks, they use it for a long time! The average session for each Link unit was four minutes and six seconds. The level of engagement makes sense since city-dwellers use these kiosks in time or attention-intensive ways, such making phone calls, getting directions, finding information about the city, or charging their phones.   

The analysis here isn’t perfect, but now we at least have a (very) rough idea of how much smart kiosks cost, how much engagement they see, and the amount of ad-revenue developers would have to believe they could realize at each unit in order to ultimately move forward with deployment. We can use these metrics to help identify what types of infrastructure have similar profiles and where an ad-funded project may make sense.

Bus stations, for example, may cost about $10,000 – $15,000, which is in a similar cost range as smart kiosks. According to the MTA, the NYC bus system sees over 11.2 million riders per week or nearly 700 riders per station per week. Rider wait times can often be five-to-ten minutes in length if not longer. Not to mention bus stations already have experience utilizing advertising to a certain degree.  Projects like bike-share docking stations and EV charging stations also seem to fit similar cost profiles while having high engagement.

And interactions with these types of infrastructure are ones where users may be more receptive to ads, such as an EV charging station where someone is both physically engaging with the equipment and idly looking to kill up sometimes up to 30 minutes of time as they charge up. As a result, more companies are using advertising models to fund projects that fit this mold, like Volta, who uses advertising to offer charging stations free to citizens.

The benefits of ad-funding come with tradeoffs for cities

When it makes sense for cities and third-party developers, advertising-funded smart city infrastructure projects can unlock a tremendous amount of value for a city. The benefits are clear – cities pay nothing, citizens are offered free connectivity and real-time information on local conditions, and smart infrastructure is built and can possibly be used for other smart city applications down the road, such as using locational data tracking to improve city zoning and congestion. 

Yes, ads are usually annoying – but maybe understanding that advertising models only work for specific types of smart city projects may help quell fears that future cities will be covered inch-to-inch in mascots. And ads on projects like LinkNYC promote local businesses and can tap into idiosyncratic conditions and preferences of regional communities – LinkNYC previously used real-time local transit data to display beer ads to subway riders that were facing heavy delays and were probably in need of a drink. 

Like everyone’s family photos from Thanksgiving, the picture here is not all roses, however, and there are a lot of deep-rooted issues that exist under the surface. Third-party developed, advertising-funded infrastructure comes with externalities and less obvious costs that have been fairly criticized and debated at length. 

When infrastructure funding is derived from advertising, concerns arise over whether services will be provided equitably across communities. Many fear that low-income or less-trafficked communities that generate less advertising demand could end up having poor infrastructure and maintenance. 

Even bigger points of contention as of late have been issues around data consent and treatment. I won’t go into much detail on the issue since it’s incredibly complex and warrants its own lengthy dissertation (and many have already been written). 

But some of the major uncertainties and questions cities are trying to answer include: If third-parties pay for, manage and operate smart city projects, who should own data on citizens’ living behavior? How will citizens give consent to provide data when tracking systems are built into the environment around them? How can the data be used? How granular can the data get? How can we assure citizens’ information is secure, especially given the spotty track records some of the major backers of smart city projects have when it comes to keeping our data safe?

The issue of data treatment is one that no one has really figured out yet and many developers are doing their best to work with cities and users to find a reasonable solution. For example, LinkNYC is currently limited by the city in the types of data they can collect. Outside of email addresses, LinkNYC doesn’t ask for or collect personal information and doesn’t sell or share personal data without a court order. The project owners also make much of its collected data publicly accessible online and through annually published transparency reports. As Intersection has deployed similar smart kiosks across new cities, the company has been willing to work through slower launches and pilot programs to create more comfortable policies for local governments.

But consequential decisions related to third-party owned smart infrastructure are only going to become more frequent as cities become increasingly digitized and connected. By having third-parties pay for projects through advertising revenue or otherwise, city budgets can be focused on other vital public services while still building the efficient, adaptive and innovative infrastructure that can help solve some of the largest problems facing civil society. But if that means giving up full control of city infrastructure and information, cities and citizens have to consider whether the benefits are worth the tradeoffs that could come with them. There is a clear price to pay here, even when someone else is footing the bill.

And lastly, some reading while in transit:

PayPal: Black Friday & Cyber Monday broke records with $1B+ in mobile payment volume

Black Friday broke records in terms of sales made from mobile devices, according to reports last week from Adobe. This week, PayPal said it saw a similar trend during the Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday shopping event. PayPal saw a record-breaking $1 billion+ in mobile payment volume for the first time ever on Black Friday – a milestone it hit again on Cyber Monday.

Mobile payment volume on Black Friday was up 42 percent over Black Friday 2017, the company said, and it even outpaced the mobile payment volume on Cyber Monday this year.

However, Cyber Monday saw more total payment volume, likely because much of the shopping that takes place that day comes from office workers back at their desktops, wrapping up a few more purchases.

Worldwide, mobile payment volume from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday accounted for a significant 43 percent of PayPal’s total payment volume. Between those days, PayPal was processing more than $25,000 per second, with more than $11,000 per second processed on mobile.

The peak hour took place on Black Friday, which shows the sales event has shifted much of its business online. It’s now coming close to topping Cyber Monday in terms of both online and mobile shopping, PayPal noted.

PayPal’s data also pointed to another trend: that of the blurring of the line as to when holiday shopping begins and ends. Many retailers these days are launching their deals on Thanksgiving or even earlier, then allowing them to run for the week of Black Friday or longer.

Amazon, for example, has decided to capitalize on its own Black Friday/Cyber Monday momentum by launching a “12 Days of Deals” event that will feature hundreds of new deals every day from Sunday December 2 through Thursday December 13.

Other times, the shopping starts early, as PayPal’s data shows. Thanksgiving has now become another major shopping day, the company said, having broken into the top 10 shopping days of the year. It also grew 41 percent over last year.

E-commerce spending wasn’t the only thing that’s up year-over-year, PayPal also found. On Giving Tuesday – the event focused on donating to charities and other worthwhile causes – PayPal said over a million customers from 180 markets donated $98 million this year. That’s a 51 percent increase from 2017, it said.