Trello acquires Butler to add power of automation

Trello, the organizational tool owned by Atlassian, announced an acquisition of its very own this morning when it bought Butler, an plug-in for an undisclosed amount.

What Butler brings to Trello is the power of automation, stringing together a bunch of commands to make something complex happen automatically. As Trello’s Michael Pryor pointed out in a blog post announcing the acquisition, we are used to tools like IFTTT, Zapier and Apple Shortcuts, and this will bring a similar type of functionality directly into Trello.

Screenshot: Trello

“Over the years, teams have discovered that by automating processes on Trello boards with the Butler Power-Up, they could spend more time on important tasks and be more productive. Butler helps teams codify business rules and processes, taking something that might take ten steps to accomplish and automating it into one click.” Pryor wrote.

This means that Trello can be more than a static organizational tool. Instead, it can move into the realm of light-weight business process automation. For example, this could allow you to move an item from your To Do board to your Doing board automatically based on dates, or to share tasks with appropriate teams as a project moves through its lifecycle, saving a bunch of manual steps that tend to add up.

The company indicated that it will be incorporating the Alfred’s capabilities directly into Trello in the coming months. It will make it available to all level of users including the free tier, but they promise more advanced functionality for Business and Enterprise customers when the integration is complete. Pryor also suggested that more automation could be coming to Trello. “Butler is Trello’s first step down this road, enabling every user to automate pieces of their Trello workflow to save time, stay organized and get more done.”

Atlassian bought Trello in 2017 for $425 million, but this acquisition indicates it is functioning quasi-independently as part of the Atlassian family.

Google has acquired one of India’s most popular train tracking apps

Google is increasing its efforts in India after it snapped up the team behind popular transportation app ‘Where is my Train.’

The app claims 10 million registered users and, as the name suggests, it helps commuters track arrivals and departures as well as buying seats. That’s no small job given that India is estimated to operate some 14,000 trains on a daily basis across the country. The app is for Android, it works offline or with poor connectivity and supports eight languages. It is rivaled by VC-backed companies like RailYatri and iXigo.

There’s no official price for the deal, although India’s Economic Times is reporting that it is in the region of $30-$40 million. The site reported on Google’s interest back in August, when it wrote that other suitors included Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi. A Google spokesperson confirmed the deal to TechCrunch, but declined to provide a price.

Sigmoid Labs, the company that develops the train app, was founded by four former TiVo executives in 2013. Economic Times reports that it has around 10 staff. It is unclear how much money it has raised to date.

The company told customers news of the acquisition on its website earlier today.

“We can think of no better place to help us achieve our mission, and we’re excited to join Google to help bring technology and information into more people’s hands,” its founders wrote.

Google said that the Where is my Train team would “continue to build on the current offering,” so it seems that the app won’t be shuttered, immediately at least.

The service’s significant userbase would suggest that Google might look to develop and expand its scope to perhaps touch on other areas. Ride-hailing apps, for example, have moved into adjacent spaces including entertainment, payments and food delivery to take advantage of their position as daily apps.

That’s all conjecture at this point. But it also stands to reason that Google could fold it into other apps, including Google Maps, although that certainly isn’t the plan at this point.

Screenshots of Where is my Train Android app from the Google Play Store

The deal falls under Google’s ‘Next Billion User’ division which is developing products and services to help increase internet adoption in emerging markets. To date that has focused strongly on India where Google has developed data-friendly ‘lite’ versions of popular apps like YouTube, and initiatives like public WiFi for India’s rail network that’s used by over eight million people.

That scope has also covered services, with Google looking at apps that provide information and utility to Indian consumers. Google launched an on-demand app and a mobile payment service last year, and this year it released a neighborhood Q&A service. The Where is my Train deal certainly fits that strategy and you’d imagine it’ll become a core part of Google’s consumer-facing product line in India.

The deal is also one of the most significant to date for a U.S-based tech firm in India. Facebook, Twitter, Google and even Yahoo have made acquisitions to build teams or acquire talent but Where is my Train seems significantly more strategic as a product.

Waggel launches ‘fully digital’ pet insurance

Waggel, a new ‘insurtech’ startup in the U.K., is officially launching today to offer what it describes as “fully digital” pet insurance.

Founded by Andrew Leal, and Ross Fretten (a contestant of The Apprentice 2017), the company wants to offer more transparent cover for your pet, where you’ll know exactly how much you’re paying and for what provision, as well as offer rewards for improving the care of your animal.

“The biggest problem in pet insurance and insurance in general is the lack of value that customers get with a policy,” says Leal. “You pay a monthly fee and get nothing in return except maybe a promise to pay out a claim in the future. On top of this, pet insurance has become extremely complicated for users with confusing policy names and jargon-rich wording. The industry is still largely paper based, slow and terrible at communicating with customers and as a result falling well short of todays consumer expectations. Insurance is very much a grudge purchase”.

Leal says that Waggel is attempting to solve this by offering a fully digital solution that puts the customer experience first “to alleviate the stress that is typical of insurance”.

You are able to get a quote within 30 seconds that explains in simple language what you’re getting for your money. You can also make a claim within the app and track that claim in real-time, while Waggel promises to be transparent on how much it is paying out and why.

“All without having to hear another minute of hold music!” quips the Waggel founder.

In addition to the startup’s core insurance product, Waggel offers a rewards programme that Leal says makes it easier and more affordable for customers to take preventative care of their pet through feeding them higher quality nutrition. This comes in the form of “discounts with our hand-picked quality pet food partners,” he says.

In terms of competition, Leal says there are numerous incumbents in the pet insurance space but cites PetPlan and Animal Friends as the main two.

“Pet insurance has gotten stuck in a vicious cycle,” he adds. “The market has developed in that competitors offer an extremely homogenous product. With not much separating the different offerings, price has become the main differentiator. On the other side, the average vet bills have continued to rise. This means that insurers are getting squeezed for profits and having to offer less and less value to their customers, whilst being stricter and stricter on claims.

“We want to bring a new fresh approach to the market in that we want to see our policyholders as members and their premium as a subscription, for which they can get continuous value for their monthly fee through our rewards programme”.

Tencent Music sued by investor ahead of $1.2 billion US IPO

China’s largest music streaming service has had a whirlwind year. With 800 million monthly users across multiple apps and a profitable business, Tencent Music Entertainment is gearing up for one of this year’s most anticipated initial public offerings in the US. But the firm has landed in hot water in the months leading up to its first-time shares sale.

Last week, Chinese investor Hanwei Guo accused TME’s co-president of using misinformation, threats and intimidation to compel him to sell his equity stakes in Ocean Music, which eventually became part of TME after Tencent’s QQ Music and China Music Corporation merged in 2016.

Han has filed a motion for discovery in the US seeking information from Deutsche Bank AG, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp. and other underwriters for TME’s IPO that the investor plans to use in an arbitration underway in China. The investor is requesting TME co-president Guomin Xie Guo and other parties involved to return percentages of his equity stakes in the music vehicle and compensate him for economic losses.

Han claims that he invested an equivalent of $26 million in Ocean Music in 2012 after Xie’s repeated invitation. Xie first touted Ocean Music on the promise that the music company would turn a profit the following year and go public in three years, but he later informed Guo that the business was failing and threatened him to sell his shares, according to a statement from Guo’s legal advisor. The investor eventually sold his shares “under duress.”

The fraud allegation arrived two months after TME reportedly delayed its IPO due to weakening stock markets around the world. The music giant has resumed the process and filled with the US Securities and Exchange Commission on December 3. According to its prospectus, TME plans to raise up to $1.23 billion with a listed price between $13 to $15 per share.

TME is now in a quiet period where federal rules limit what the company can say in public ahead of its IPO, which Bloomberg reported is set to begin taking orders on December 12.

A spun-out subsidiary of Tencent, TME operates three music streaming apps — QQ Music and what the CMC merger brought over, Kuwo Music and Kugou Music. The entertainment group also runs China’s top karaoke app WeSing, on which users can record and upload their work.

Unlike its money-losing western counterparts Spotify, TME is profitable thanks to a flourishing social business. For example, WeSing users can send virtual gifts to reward content creators, from which TME takes a commission. On the other hand, only 3.6 percent of TME’s users are paying subscribers as of the second quarter, part of a result of China’s rampant online piracy issue. The rate is much lower compared to other music services around the world but TME says in the prospectus that it expects revenue from paid subscriptions to increase over time.

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.

Uber files confidentially for IPO

Two days after Lyft submitted paperwork to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for an early 2019 initial public offering, Uber has done the same, per The Wall Street Journal.

The company filed confidentially for an IPO on Friday, marking the beginning of a race for the two ride-hailing giants to the stock markets.

Uber’s most recent private market valuation was a whopping $72 billion, though the nearly 10-year-old business reportedly expects Wall Street to value it at as much as $120 billion in what will easily be one of the most highly-anticipated IPOs of the decade.

Uber didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Founded in 2009 by Travis Kalanick, Uber has raised a total of nearly $20 billion in a combination of debt and equity funding, according to PitchBook. SoftBank alone has invested billions in the company to become its largest shareholder. Uber’s other key backers are Toyota, which invested $500 million just a few months ago, as well as late-stage investors T. Rowe Price, Fidelity and TPG Growth.

First Round Capital, Lowercase Capital and others stand to earn big from Uber’s exit — all were participants in some of the company’s earliest venture capital rounds.

The filing comes slightly earlier than expected. Uber’s current chief executive officer Dara Khosrowshahi previously said he expected the company to complete an IPO in mid-2019 but today’s news puts Uber on pace to debut in the first quarter of 2019.

“[Uber] has all the disadvantage of being a public company, with the spotlight on us, with none of the advantages,” Khosrowshahi said on stage at the New York Times’ Dealbook conference in 2017. Surely Lyft’s IPO paperwork accelerated Uber’s timeline a bit.

Lyft, Uber’s largest competitor in the U.S., will likely take the plunge in the first quarter of 2019, too. The company was most recently valued at about $15 billion. Its IPO will be underwritten by JPMorgan Chase, Credit Suisse and Jeffries.

2019 will be a fascinating year for unicorn exits, with a separate report out today that Slack is prepping its IPO too and has hired Goldman Sachs to underwrite its offering.

Grab invests $100M into India’s OYO to expand its budget hotel service in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asian ride-hailing firm Grab has made its most ambitious investment to date after it backed India-headquartered budget hotel network OYO to the tune of $100 million. The investment was part of a $1 billion Series E round led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund that closed back in September.

The deal was first made public via a regulatory filing in India, as Economic Times reported.

“We can confirm the investment into OYO,” a Grab spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Grab has done a handful of strategic deals thus far, including investments in bike-sharing startup oBike and grocery delivery service HappyFresh, but those have been far smaller and local to Southeast Asia. Its highest acquisition to date is around $100 million for Indonesia-based offline payment network Kudo some 18 months ago.

The deal with OYO is not only far higher but also outside of its immediate home turf, which spans eight countries in Southeast Asia. OYO’s business is heavily focused on India and China, but the company is also active in Nepal, Malaysia and, most recently, the UK. That Series E deal was aimed at funding international growth and it looks like Grab will work closely with the company to help expand its presence in Southeast Asia, a region with over 650 million consumers and a fast growing digital economy.

A source with knowledge of discussions told TechCrunch that Grab was primarily motivated to partner with OYO for its potential to boost its GrabPay service. The core idea here is that GrabPay could become the preferred payment method for OYO in Southeast Asia, thereby boosting Grab’s ambition of dominating the region’s mobile payment space.

OYO claims to have over 10,000 franchised or leased hotels in its network which it says spans 350 cities across five countries, although most of that is concentrated on India and China. In the latter country, OYO says it offers 87,000 rooms in 171 cities after launching in the country in June 2018.

Southeast Asia, where OYO is already present via Malaysia, is an obvious next step and Grab could also give it a helpful boost to reaching customers by including its service on its in-app platform. Months after a deal to buy Uber’s local business in exchange for a 27.5 percent equity stake, Grab unveiled a ‘platform’ designed to aggregate services in the region to give its audience of over 110 million registered users visibility of services that they may like. That, in turn, can help companies tap into the Grab userbase, although some users have complained that Grab’s app is increasingly ‘cluttered’ with additional services and information beyond basic transportation.

Grab has already partnered with travel giant Booking — which recently invested $200 million in its business — to offer deals to its users, and it is quite conceivable that it could do the same with OYO to help the Indian firm’s efforts in Southeast Asia.

The $11 billion-valued ride-hailing firm isn’t short of cash — having raised over $3 billion this year — so it can afford to make the occasional splashy investment. However, it might need a budget reallocation. That’s because Indonesian rival Go-Jek’s continued Southeast Asia expansion is threatening to reignite a subsidiary war that Grab probably thought it had won for good after Uber’s exit. It’ll be interesting to watch how that competition weighs in Grab’s overall effort to go from ride-hailing into the ‘super app’ space, covering payments, local services and more.

Contentful raises $33.5M for its headless CMS platform

Contentful, a Berlin- and San Francisco-based startup that provides content management infrastructure for companies like Spotify, Nike, Lyft and others, today announced that it has raised a $33.5 million Series D funding round led by Sapphire Ventures, with participation from OMERS Ventures and Salesforce Ventures, as well as existing investors General Catalyst, Benchmark, Balderton Capital and Hercules. In total, the company has now raised $78.3 million.

It’s only been less than a year since the company raised its Series C round and as Contentful co-founder and CEO Sascha Konietzke told me, the company didn’t really need to raise right now. “We had just raised our last round about a year ago. We still had plenty of cash in our bank account and we didn’t need to raise as of now,” said Konietzke. “But we saw a lot of economic uncertainty, so we thought it might be a good moment in time to recharge. And at the same time, we already had some interesting conversations ongoing with Sapphire [formeraly SAP Ventures] and Salesforce. So we saw the opportunity to add more funding and also start getting into a tight relationship with both of these players.”

The original plan for Contentful was to focus almost explicitly on mobile. As it turns out, though, the company’s customers also wanted to use the service to handle its web-based applications and these days, Contentful happily supports both. “What we’re seeing is that everything is becoming an application,” he told me. “We started with native mobile application, but even the websites nowadays are often an application.”

In its early days, Contentful also focuses only on developers. Now, however, that’s changing and having these connections to large enterprise players like SAP and Salesforce surely isn’t going to hurt the company as it looks to bring on larger enterprise accounts.

Currently, the company’s focus is very much on Europe and North America, which account for about 80% of its customers. For now, Contentful plans to continue to focus on these regions, though it obviously supports customers anywhere in the world.

Contentful only exists as a hosted platform. As of now, the company doesn’t have any plans for offering a self-hosted version, though Konietzke noted that he does occasionally get requests for this.

What the company is planning to do in the near future, though, is to enable more integrations with existing enterprise tools. “Customers are asking for deeper integrations into their enterprise stack,” Konietzke said. “And that’s what we’re beginning to focus on and where we’re building a lot of capabilities around that.” In addition, support for GraphQL and an expanded rich text editing experience is coming up. The company also recently launched a new editing experience.