Jun
16
2021
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Novo, a neobank for SMBs, banks $41M

Small businesses have traditionally been underserved when it comes to IT — they are too big and have too many requirements that can’t be met by consumer products, yet are much too small to afford, implement or thoroughly need apps and other IT build for larger enterprises. But when it comes to neobanks, it feels like there is no shortage of options for the SMB market, nor venture funding being invested to help them grow.

In the latest development, Novo, a neobank that has built a service targeting small businesses, has closed a round of $40.7 million, a Series A that it will be using to continue growing its business, and its platform.

The funding is being led by Valar Ventures with Crosslink Capital, Rainfall Ventures, Red Sea Ventures and BoxGroup all participating. The startup is not disclosing valuation, but Novo — originally founded in New York in 2018 but now based out of Miami — has racked up 100,000 SMB customers — which it defines as businesses that make between $25,000 and $100,000 in annualized revenues — and has seen $1 billion in lifetime transactions, with growth accelerating in the last couple of years.

There are a wide variety of options for small businesses these days when it comes to going for a banking solution. They include staying with traditional banks (which are starting to add an increasing number of services and perks to retain small business customers), as well as a variety of fintechs — other neobanks, like Novo — that are building banking and related financial tools to cater to startups and other small businesses.

Just doing a quick search, some of the others targeting the sector include Rho, NorthOne, Lili, Mercury, Brex, Hatch, Anna, Tide, Viva Wallet, Open and many more (and you could argue also players like Amazon, offering other money management and spending tools similar to what neobanks are providing). Some of these are not in the U.S., and some are geared more at startups, or freelancers, but taken together they speak to the opportunity and also the attention that it is getting from the tech industry right now.

As CEO and co-founder Michael Rangel — who hails from Miami — described it to me, one of the key differentiators with Novo is that it’s approaching SMB banking from the point of view of running a small business. By this, he means that typically SMBs are already using a lot of other finance software — on average seven apps per business — to manage their books, payments and other matters, and so Novo has made it easier by way of a “drag and drop” dashboard where an SMB can integrate and view activity across all of those apps in one place. There are “dozens” of integrations currently, he said, and more are being added.

This is the first step, he said. The plan is to build more technology so that the activity between different apps can also be monitored, and potentially automated

“We’re able to see this is your balance and what you should expect,” he said. “The next frontier is to marry the incoming with outgoing. We’re using the funding to build that, and it’s on the roadmap in the next six months.”

Novo has yet to bring cash advances or other lending products into its platform, although those too are on the roadmap, but it is also listening to its customers and watching what they want to do on the platform — another reason why it’s clever to make it easy to for those customers to integrate other services into Novo: not only does that solve a pain point for the customer, but it becomes a pretty clear indicator of what customers are doing, and how you could better cater to that.

Listening to the customers is in itself becoming a happy challenge, it seems. Novo launched quietly enough — between 2018 and the end of 2019, it had picked up only 5,000 accounts. But all that changed during 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, which Rangel describes as “just hockey stick growth. We grew like crazy.”

The reason, he said, is a classic example of why incumbent banks have to catch up with the times. Everyone was locked down at home, and suddenly a lot of people who were either furloughed or laid off were “spinning up businesses,” he said, and that led to many of them needing to open bank accounts. But those who tried to do this with high-street banks were met with a pretty significant barrier: you had to go into the bank in person to authenticate yourself, but either the banks were closed, or people didn’t want to travel to them. That paved the way for Novo (and others) to cater to them.

Its customer numbers shot up to 24,000 in the year.

Then other market forces have also helped it. You might recall that banking app Simple was shut down by BBVA ahead of its merger with PNC; but at the same time, it also shut down Azlo, it’s small business banking service. That led to a significant number of users migrating to other services, and Novo got a huge windfall out of that, too.

In the last six months, Novo grew four-fold, and Rangel attributed a lot of that to ex-Azloans looking for a new home.

The fact that there are so many SMB banking providers out there might mean competition, but it also means fragmentation, and so if a startup emerges that seems to be catching on, it’s going to catch something else, too: the eye of investors.

“The ability of the Novo team to grow the company rapidly during a year where businesses have faced unprecedented challenges is impressive,” said Andrew McCormack, founding partner at Valar Ventures, the firm co-founded by Peter Thiel, another big figure in fintech. “Novo tripled its small business customer base in the first half of 2021! Their custom infrastructure and banking platform put them in prime position to expand their services at an even faster pace as we come out of the health crisis. All of us at Valar Ventures are excited to join this team.”

Apr
27
2021
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Vista Equity takes minority stake in Canada’s Vena with $242M investment

Vena, a Canadian company focused on the Corporate Performance Management (CPM) software space, has raised $242 million in Series C funding from Vista Equity Partners.

As part of the financing, Vista Equity is taking a minority stake in the company. The round follows $25 million in financing from CIBC Innovation Banking last September, and brings Vena’s total raised since its 2011 inception to over $363 million.

Vena declined to provide any financial metrics or the valuation at which the new capital was raised, saying only that its “consistent growth and…strong customer retention and satisfaction metrics created real demand” as it considered raising its C round.

The company was originally founded as a B2B provider of planning, budgeting and forecasting software. Over time, it’s evolved into what it describes as a “fully cloud-native, corporate performance management platform” that aims to empower finance, operations and business leaders to “Plan to Growtheir businesses. Its customers hail from a variety of industries, including banking, SaaS, manufacturing, healthcare, insurance and higher education. Among its over 900 customers are the Kansas City Chiefs, Coca-Cola Consolidated, World Vision International and ELF Cosmetics.

Vena CEO Hunter Madeley told TechCrunch the latest raise is “mostly an acceleration story for Vena, rather than charting new paths.”

The company plans to use its new funds to build out and enable its go-to-market efforts as well as invest in its product development roadmap. It’s not really looking to enter new markets, considering it’s seeing what it describes as “tremendous demand” in the markets it currently serves directly and through its partner network.

“While we support customers across the globe, we’ll stay focused on growing our North American, U.K. and European business in the near term,” Madeley said.

Vena says it leverages the “flexibility and familiarity” of an Excel interface within its “secure” Complete Planning platform. That platform, it adds, brings people, processes and systems into a single source solution to help organizations automate and streamline finance-led processes, accelerate complex business processes and “connect the dots between departments and plan with the power of unified data.”            

Early backers JMI Equity and Centana Growth Partners will remain active, partnering with Vista “to help support Vena’s continued momentum,” the company said. As part of the raise, Vista Equity Managing Director Kim Eaton and Marc Teillon, senior managing director and co-head of Vista’s Foundation Fund, will join the company’s board.

“The pandemic has emphasized the need for agile financial planning processes as companies respond to quickly-changing market conditions, and Vena is uniquely positioned to help businesses address the challenges required to scale their processes through this pandemic and beyond,” said Eaton in a written statement. 

Vena currently has more than 450 employees across the U.S., Canada and the U.K., up from 393 last year at this time.

May
13
2020
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UK’s ANNA raises $21M for its SMB-focused business account and tax app

Small and medium businesses and sole-traders account for the vast majority of businesses globally, 99.9% of all enterprises in the UK alone. And while the existence millions of separate companies, with their individual demands, speaks of a fragmented market, together they still represent a lot of opportunity. Today, a UK fintech startup looking to capitalise on that is announcing a round of growth funding to enter Europe after onboarding 20,000 customers in its home country.

ANNA, a mobile-first banking, tax accounting and financial service assistant aimed at small and medium businesses and freelancers, has closed a $21 million round of investment from a single investor, the ABHH Group, the sometimes controversial owner of Alfa Bank in Russia, the Amsterdam Trade Bank in the Netherlands, and other businesses.

The investment is a strategic one: ANNA will be using the funding to expand for the first time outside of the UK into Europe, and CEO Edouard Panteleev said that effort will be built on Amsterdam Trade Bank’s rails. He confirmed that the investment values ANNA at $110 million, and the founders keep control of 40% of the company in the deal.

The fundraising started before COVID-19 really picked up speed, but its chilling effect on the economy has also had a direct impact on the very businesses that ANNA targets as customers: some have seen drastic reductions in commercial activity, and some have shuttered their businesses altogether.

Despite this, the situation hasn’t changed measurably for ANNA, Panteleev said.

“Covid-19 hasn’t impacted us so far. We are designed as a digital business, and so working from home was a completely normal shift for us to make,” he said, but added that when it comes to the customers, “Yes, we have seen that our customers’ incoming payments are quite affected, with 15-30% decrease in the volume of customer payments.” The firm belief that ANNA and investors have, however, is that business will bounce back, and ANNA wants to make sure it’s in a strong position when it does.

ANNA is an acronym for “Absolutely No Nonsense Admin” and that explains the gist of what it aims to do: it provides an all-in-one service for smaller enterprises that lets them run a business account to make and receive payments, along with software for invoicing, accounting and managing taxes that is run through a chat interface to assist you and automate some of the functions (like invoice tracking). ANNA also offers additional services, such as connecting you to a live accountant during tax season.

ANNA is part of a wave of fintech startups that have cropped up in the last several years specifically targeting SMEs .

It used to be the case that SMEs and freelancers were drastically underserved in the world of financial services: their business, even collectively, is not as lucrative as accounts from larger enterprises, and therefore there was little innovation or attention paid to how to improve their experience or offerings, and so whatever traditional banks had to offer was what they got.

All that changed with the rise of “fintech” as a salient category: ever-smarter smartphones and app usage are now ubiquitous, broadband is inexpensive and also widespread, cloud and other technology has turbo charged what people can do on their devices, and people are just more digitally savvy. A wave of startups have taken advantage of all that to develop fintech services catering to SMEs, which also has meant competition from the likes of Monzo, Revolut, Tide, and  now even offerings from high street banks like NatWest.

Panteleev believes ANNA’s product stands separate from these. “We offer more of a financial assistant to users, rather than just moving their money, and it’s also a different business case, because we look at what a user needs more holistically,” he said. Pricing is also a little different: businesses with monthly income of less than $500 can use ANNA for free. It then goes up on a sliding scale to a maximum of £19.90 per month, for those with monthly income between £20,000 and £500,000.

Panteleev — who co-founded the company with Andrey Pachay, Boris Dyakonov, Daljit Singh, Nikita Filippov, and Slava Akulov — is a repeat entrepreneur, having founded two other banking startups in Russia with Dyakonov that are still going, Knopka (Russian for button), and Totchka (Russian for dot). These are older and more established: Totchka for example has some 500,000 users, but Panteleev has said that there are no plans to try to bring ANNA into the Russian market, nor take these other companies international.

For ABHH, the attraction of investing in this particular startup was probably two-fold. The businesses have Russian DNA in common, making for potentially a better cultural fit, but also it is yet another example of a legacy, large bank tapping into a smaller and more fleet-of-foot startup to address a market sector that the bigger company might be more challenged to do alone.

“I’m looking forward to embarking on this exciting journey together,” said Alan Vaksman, member of the supervisory board at Amsterdam Trade Bank and future chairman of ANNA, in a statement. “At this moment most SMEs find themselves in a challenging situation, however, once the pandemic comes to an end, there will be a very clear realisation that neither corporates nor family businesses can afford to run most operational processes manually. Tech services and platforms, like ANNA, are in for some dynamic times ahead.”

Mar
01
2020
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Thought Machine nabs $83M for a cloud-based platform that powers banking services

The world of consumer banking has seen a massive shift in the last ten years. Gone are the days where you could open an account, take out a loan, or discuss changing the terms of your banking only by visiting a physical branch. Now, you can do all this and more with a few quick taps on your phone screen — a shift that has accelerated with customers expecting and demanding even faster and more responsive banking services.

As one mark of that switch, today a startup called Thought Machine, which has built cloud-based technology that powers this new generation of services on behalf of both old and new banks, is announcing some significant funding — $83 million — a Series B that the company plans to use to continue investing in its platform and growing its customer base.

To date, Thought Machine’s customers are primarily in Europe and Asia — they include large, legacy outfits like Standard Chartered, Lloyds Banking Group, and Sweden’s SEB through to “challenger” (AKA neo-) banks like Atom Bank. Some of this financing will go towards boosting the startup’s activities in the US, including opening an office in the country later this year and moving ahead with commercial deals.

The funding is being led by Draper Esprit, with participation also from existing investors Lloyds Banking Group, IQ Capital, Backed and Playfair.

Thought Machine, which started in 2014 and now employs 300, is not disclosing its valuation but Paul Taylor, the CEO and founder, noted that the market cap is currently “increasing healthily.” In its last round, according to PitchBook estimates, the company was valued at around $143 million, which, at this stage of funding, puts this latest round potentially in the range of between $220 million and $320 million.

Thought Machine is not yet profitable, mainly because it is in growth mode, said Taylor. Of note, the startup has been through one major bankruptcy restructuring, although it appears that this was mainly for organisational purposes: all assets, employees and customers from one business controlled by Taylor were acquired by another.

Thought Machine’s primary product and technology is called Vault, a platform that contains a range of banking services: checking accounts, savings accounts, loans, credit cards and mortgages. Thought Machine does not sell directly to consumers, but sells by way of a B2B2C model.

The services are provisioned by way of smart contracts, which allows Thought Machine and its banking customers to personalise, vary and segment the terms for each bank — and potentially for each customer of the bank.

Food for Thought (Machine)

It’s a little odd to think that there is an active market for banking services that are not built and owned by the banks themselves. After all, aren’t these the core of what banks are supposed to do?

But one way to think about it is in the context of eating out. Restaurants’ kitchens will often make in-house what they sell and serve. But in some cases, when it makes sense, even the best places will buy in (and subsequently sell) food that was crafted elsewhere. For example, a restaurant will re-sell cheese or charcuterie, and the wine is likely to come from somewhere else, too.

The same is the case for banks, whose “Crown Jewels” are in fact not the mechanics of their banking services, but their customer service, their customer lists, and their deposits. Better banking services (which may not have been built “in-house”) are key to growing these other three.

“There are all sorts of banks, and they are all trying to find niches,” said Taylor. Indeed, the startup is not the only one chasing that business. Others include Mambu, Temenos and Italy’s Edera.

In the case of the legacy banks that work with the startup, the idea is that these behemoths can migrate into the next generation of consumer banking services and banking infrastructure by cherry-picking services from the VaultOS platform.

“Banks have not kept up and are marooned on their own tech, and as each year goes by, it comes more problematic,” noted Taylor.

In the case of neobanks, Thought Machine’s pitch is that it has already built the rails to run a banking service, so a startup — “new challengers like Monzo and Revolut that are creating quite a lot of disruption in the market” (and are growing very quickly as a result) — can integrate into these to get off the ground more quickly and handle scaling with less complexity (and lower costs).

Money talks

Taylor was new to fintech when he founded Thought Machine, but he has a notable track record in the world of tech that you could argue played a big role in his subsequent foray into banking.

Formerly an academic specialising in linguistics and engineering, his first startup, Rhetorical Systems, commercialised some of his early speech-to-text research and was later sold to Nuance in 2004.

His second entrepreneurial effort, Phonetic Arts, was another speech startup, aimed at tech that could be used in gaming interactions. In 2010, Google approached the startup to see if it wanted to work on a new speech-to-text service it was building. It ended up acquiring Phonetic Arts, and Taylor took on the role of building and launching Google Now, with that voice tech eventually making its way to Google Maps, accessibility services, the Google Assistant and other places where you speech-based interaction makes an appearance in Google products.

While he was working for years in the field, the step changes that really accelerated voice recognition and speech technology, Taylor said, were the rapid increases in computing power and data networks that “took us over the edge” in terms of what a machine could do, specifically in the cloud.

And those are the same forces, in fact, that led to consumers being able to run our banking services from smartphone apps, and for us to want and expect more personalised services overall. Taylor’s move into building and offering a platform-based service to address the need for multiple third-party banking services follows from that, and also is the natural heir to the platform model you could argue Google and other tech companies have perfected over the years.

Draper Esprit has to date built up a strong portfolio of fintech startups that includes Revolut, N26, TransferWise and Freetrade. Thought Machine’s platform approach is an obvious complement to that list. (Taylor did not disclose if any of those companies are already customers of Thought Machine’s, but if they are not, this investment could be a good way of building inroads.)

“We are delighted to be partnering with Thought Machine in this phase of their growth,” said Vinoth Jayakumar, Investment Director, Draper Esprit, in a statement. “Our investments in Revolut and N26 demonstrate how banking is undergoing a once in a generation transformation in the technology it uses and the benefit it confers to the customers of the bank. We continue to invest in our thesis of the technology layer that forms the backbone of banking. Thought Machine stands out by way of the strength of its engineering capability, and is unique in being the only company in the banking technology space that has developed a platform capable of hosting and migrating international Tier 1 banks. This allows innovative banks to expand beyond digital retail propositions to being able to run every function and type of financial transaction in the cloud.”

“We first backed Thought Machine at seed stage in 2016 and have seen it grow from a startup to a 300-person strong global scale-up with a global customer base and potential to become one of the most valuable European fintech companies,” said Max Bautin, Founding Partner of IQ Capital, in a statement. “I am delighted to continue to support Paul and the team on this journey, with an additional £15 million investment from our £100 million Growth Fund, aimed at our venture portfolio outperformers.”

Sep
17
2019
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IEX’s Katsuyama is no flash in the pan

When you watch a commercial for one of the major stock exchanges, you are welcomed into a world of fast-moving, slick images full of glistening buildings, lush crops and happy people. They are typically interspersed with shots of intrepid executives veering out over the horizon as if to say, “I’ve got a long-term vision, and the exchange where my stock is listed is a valuable partner in achieving my goals.” It’s all very reassuring and stylish. But there’s another side to the story.

I have been educated about the realities of today’s stock exchange universe through recent visits with Brad Katsuyama, co-founder and CEO of IEX (a.k.a. The Investors Exchange). If Katsuyama’s name rings a bell, and you don’t work on Wall Street, it’s likely because you remember him as the protagonist of Michael Lewis’s 2014 best-seller, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, which explored high-frequency trading (HFT) and made the case that the stock market was rigged, really badly.

Five years later, some of the worst practices Lewis highlighted are things of the past, and there are several attributes of the American equity markets that are widely admired around the world. In many ways, though, the realities of stock trading have gotten more unseemly, thanks to sophisticated trading technologies (e.g., microwave radio transmissions that can carry information at almost the speed of light), and pitched battles among the exchanges, investors and regulators over issues including the rebates stock exchanges pay to attract investors’ orders and the price of market data charged by the exchanges.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the inner workings of the stock market, but I do know this: Likening the life cycle of a trade to sausage-making is an insult to kielbasa. More than ever, trading is an arcane, highly technical and bewildering part of our broader economic infrastructure, which is just the way many industry participants like it: Nothing to see here, folks.

Meanwhile, Katsuyama, company president Ronan Ryan and the IEX team have turned IEX into the eighth largest stock exchange company, globally, by notional value traded, and have transformed the concept of a “speed bump” into a mainstream exchange feature.

Brad Aug 12

Brad Katsuyama. Image by Joshua Blackburn via IEX Trading

Despite these and other accomplishments, IEX finds itself in the middle of a vicious battle with powerful incumbents that seem increasingly emboldened to use their muscle in Washington, D.C. What’s more, new entrants, such as The Long-Term Stock Exchange and Members Exchange, are gearing up to enter the fray in US equities, while global exchanges such as the Hong Kong Stock Exchange seek to bulk up by making audacious moves like attempting to acquire the venerable London Stock Exchange.

But when you sell such distinct advantages to one group that really can only benefit from that, it leads to the question of why anyone would want to trade on that market. It’s like walking into a playing field where you know that the deck is stacked against you.

As my discussion with Katsuyama reveals, IEX may have taken some punches in carving out a position for itself in this high-stakes war characterized by cutting-edge technology and size. However, the IEX team remains girded for battle and confident that it can continue to make headway in offering a fair and transparent option for market participants over the long term.

Gregg Schoenberg: Given Flash Boys and the attention it generated for you on Main Street, I’d like to establish something upfront. Does IEX exist for the asset manager, the individual, or both?

Brad Katsuyama: We exist primarily for the asset manager, and helping them helps the individual. We’re one step removed from the individual, and part of that is due to regulation. Only brokers can connect to exchanges, and the asset manager connects to the broker.

Schoenberg: To put a finer point on it, you believe in fairness and being the good guy. But you are not Robinhood. You are a capitalist.

Katsuyama: Yes, but we want to make money fairly. Actually, we thought initially about starting the business as a nonprofit, But once we laid out all the people we would need to convince to work for us, we realized it would’ve been hard for us to attract the skill sets needed as a nonprofit.

Schoenberg: Do you believe that the US equity market today primarily serves investors or traders?

Jul
08
2019
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Grasshopper’s Judith Erwin leaps into innovation banking

In the years following the financial crisis, de novo bank activity in the US slowed to a trickle. But as memories fade, the economy expands and the potential of tech-powered financial services marches forward, entrepreneurs have once again been asking the question, “Should I start a bank?”

And by bank, I’m not referring to a neobank, which sits on top of a bank, or a fintech startup that offers an interesting banking-like service of one kind or another. I mean a bank bank.

One of those entrepreneurs is Judith Erwin, a well-known business banking executive who was part of the founding team at Square 1 Bank, which was bought in 2015. Fast forward a few years and Erwin is back, this time as CEO of the cleverly named Grasshopper Bank in New York.

With over $130 million in capital raised from investors including Patriot Financial and T. Rowe Price Associates, Grasshopper has a notable amount of heft for a banking newbie. But as Erwin and her team seek to build share in the innovation banking market, she knows that she’ll need the capital as she navigates a hotly contested niche that has benefited from a robust start-up and venture capital environment.

Gregg Schoenberg: Good to see you, Judith. To jump right in, in my opinion, you were a key part of one of the most successful de novo banks in quite some time. You were responsible for VC relationships there, right?

…My background is one where people give me broken things, I fix them and give them back.

Judith Erwin: The VC relationships and the products and services managing the balance sheet around deposits. Those were my two primary roles, but my background is one where people give me broken things, I fix them and give them back.

Schoenberg: Square 1 was purchased for about 22 times earnings and 260% of tangible book, correct?

Erwin: Sounds accurate.

Schoenberg: Plus, the bank had a phenomenal earnings trajectory. Meanwhile, PacWest, which acquired you, was a “perfectly nice bank.” Would that be a fair characterization?

Erwin: Yes.

Schoenberg: Is part of the motivation to start Grasshopper to continue on a journey that maybe ended a little bit prematurely last time?

Erwin: That’s a great insight, and I did feel like we had sold too soon. It was a great deal for the investors — which included me — and so I understood it. But absolutely, a lot of what we’re working to do here are things I had hoped to do at Square 1.

Image via Getty Images / Classen Rafael / EyeEm

Schoenberg: You’re obviously aware of the 800-pound gorilla in the room in the form of Silicon Valley Bank . You’ve also got the megabanks that play in the segment, as well as Signature Bank, First Republic, Bridge Bank and others.

May
16
2019
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OpenFin raises $17 million for its OS for finance

OpenFin, the company looking to provide the operating system for the financial services industry, has raised $17 million in funding through a Series C round led by Wells Fargo, with participation from Barclays and existing investors including Bain Capital Ventures, J.P. Morgan and Pivot Investment Partners. Previous investors in OpenFin also include DRW Venture Capital, Euclid Opportunities and NYCA Partners.

Likening itself to “the OS of finance,” OpenFin seeks to be the operating layer on which applications used by financial services companies are built and launched, akin to iOS or Android for your smartphone.

OpenFin’s operating system provides three key solutions which, while present on your mobile phone, has previously been absent in the financial services industry: easier deployment of apps to end users, fast security assurances for applications and interoperability.

Traders, analysts and other financial service employees often find themselves using several separate platforms simultaneously, as they try to source information and quickly execute multiple transactions. Yet historically, the desktop applications used by financial services firms — like trading platforms, data solutions or risk analytics — haven’t communicated with one another, with functions performed in one application not recognized or reflected in external applications.

“On my phone, I can be in my calendar app and tap an address, which opens up Google Maps. From Google Maps, maybe I book an Uber . From Uber, I’ll share my real-time location on messages with my friends. That’s four different apps working together on my phone,” OpenFin CEO and co-founder Mazy Dar explained to TechCrunch. That cross-functionality has long been missing in financial services.

As a result, employees can find themselves losing precious time — which in the world of financial services can often mean losing money — as they juggle multiple screens and perform repetitive processes across different applications.

Additionally, major banks, institutional investors and other financial firms have traditionally deployed natively installed applications in lengthy processes that can often take months, going through long vendor packaging and security reviews that ultimately don’t prevent the software from actually accessing the local system.

OpenFin CEO and co-founder Mazy Dar (Image via OpenFin)

As former analysts and traders at major financial institutions, Dar and his co-founder Chuck Doerr (now president & COO of OpenFin) recognized these major pain points and decided to build a common platform that would enable cross-functionality and instant deployment. And since apps on OpenFin are unable to access local file systems, banks can better ensure security and avoid prolonged yet ineffective security review processes.

And the value proposition offered by OpenFin seems to be quite compelling. OpenFin boasts an impressive roster of customers using its platform, including more than 1,500 major financial firms, almost 40 leading vendors and 15 of the world’s 20 largest banks.

More than 1,000 applications have been built on the OS, with OpenFin now deployed on more than 200,000 desktops — a noteworthy milestone given that the ever-popular Bloomberg Terminal, which is ubiquitously used across financial institutions and investment firms, is deployed on roughly 300,000 desktops.

Since raising their Series B in February 2017, OpenFin’s deployments have more than doubled. The company’s headcount has also doubled and its European presence has tripled. Earlier this year, OpenFin also launched it’s OpenFin Cloud Services platform, which allows financial firms to launch their own private local app stores for employees and customers without writing a single line of code.

To date, OpenFin has raised a total of $40 million in venture funding and plans to use the capital from its latest round for additional hiring and to expand its footprint onto more desktops around the world. In the long run, OpenFin hopes to become the vital operating infrastructure upon which all developers of financial applications are innovating.

Apple and Google’s mobile operating systems and app stores have enabled more than a million apps that have fundamentally changed how we live,” said Dar. “OpenFin OS and our new app store services enable the next generation of desktop apps that are transforming how we work in financial services.”

Apr
05
2019
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Peter Kraus dishes on the market

During my recent conversation with Peter Kraus, which was supposed to be focused on Aperture and its launch of the Aperture New World Opportunities Fund, I couldn’t help veering off into tangents about the market in general. Below is Kraus’ take on the availability of alpha generation, the Fed, inflation versus Amazon, housing, the cross-ownership of U.S. equities by a few huge funds and high-frequency trading.

Gregg Schoenberg: Will alpha be more available over the next five years than it has been over the last five?

To think that at some point equities won’t become more volatile and decline 20% to 30%… I think it’s crazy.

Peter Kraus: Do I think it’s more available in the next five years than it was in the last five years? No. Do I think people will pay more attention to it? Yes, because when markets are up to 30 percent, if you get another five, it doesn’t matter. When markets are down 30 percent and I save you five by being 25 percent down, you care.

GS: Is the Fed’s next move up or down?

PK: I think the Fed does zero, nothing. In terms of its next interest rate move, in my judgment, there’s a higher probability that it’s down versus up.

Mar
20
2019
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Movius raises $45M for its business communications service

Atlanta-based Movius, a company that allows companies to assign a separate business number for voice calls and texting to any phone, today announced that it has raised a $45 million Series D round led by JPMorgan Chase, with participation from existing investors PointGuard Ventures, New Enterprise Associates and Anschutz Investment company. With this, the company has now raised a total of $100 million.

In addition to the new funding, Movius also today announced that it has brought on former Adobe and Sun executive John Loiacono as its new CEO. Loiacono was also the founding CEO of network analytics startup Jolata.

“The Movius opportunity is pervasive. Almost every company on planet Earth is mobilizing their workforce but are challenged to find a way to securely interact with their customers and constituents using all the preferred communication vehicles – be that voice, SMS or any other channel they use in their daily lives,” said Loiacono. “I’m thrilled because I’m joining a team that features highly passionate and proven innovators who are maniacally focused on delivering this very solution. I look forward to leading this next chapter of growth for the company.”

Sanjay Jain, the chief strategy officer at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, and Larry Feinsmith, the head of JPMorgan Chase’s Technology Innovation, Strategy & Partnerships office, are joining the company’s board.

Movius currently counts more than 1,400 businesses as its customers, and its carrier partners include Sprint, Telstra and Telefonica. What’s important to note is that Movius is more than a basic VoIP app on your phone. What the company promises is a carrier-grade network that allows businesses to assign a second number to their employees’ phones. That way, the employer remains in charge, even as employees bring their own devices to work.

Nov
20
2018
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Our 3 favorite startups from Morgan Stanley’s 2nd Multicultural Innovation Lab Demo Day 

The Morgan Stanley Multicultural Innovation LabMorgan Stanley’s in-house accelerator focused on companies founded by multicultural and female entrepreneurs, hosted its second Annual Showcase and Demo Day. The event also featured companies from accelerators HearstLab, Newark Venture Partner Labs and PS27 Ventures. (Note: I was formerly employed by Morgan Stanley and have no financial ties.)

The showcase represented the culmination of the program’s second year, which followed an initial five-company class that has already seen two acquisitions. Through the six-month program, Morgan Stanley provides early-stage companies with a wide range of benefits, including an equity investment from Morgan Stanley, office space at Morgan Stanley headquarters, access to Morgan Stanley’s extensive network and others. Applications are now open for its third cohort of companies, with the application window closing on January 4th, 2019.

The 16 presenting startups, all led by a female or multicultural founder, offered solutions to structural inefficiencies across a wide array of categories, including fintech, developer tools and health. Though all of the companies offered impressive presentations and strong value propositions, here are three of the companies that stood out to us.

Hatch Apps

In hopes of democratizing software and app development, Hatch Apps provides a platform that allows users and companies to build iOS, Android and web applications without any code through pre-built templates and custom plug-and-play functions. In essence, Hatch Apps provides a solution for application building similar to what Squarespace or Wix provide for websites.

In the modern economy, every company is in one way or another a tech or tech-enabled company. Now the demand for strong engineers has made the fight for talent increasingly competitive and has made engineering quite costly, even when only needed for simple tasks. 

For an implementation and subscription fee, Hatch Apps allows companies with less sophisticated engineering DNA to reduce entering costs by launching native apps on their own, across platforms and often on faster timelines than those seen through third-party developers. Once an app is launched, Hatch Apps provides customers with detailed analytics and allows them to send targeted push notifications, export data and make in-app changes that can automatically go live in app stores.

The company initially took a bootstrapping approach to financing and raised funds by selling a 2016 election-themed “Cards Against Humanity”-style game created on the platform. Since then, Hatch Apps has already received funding from the Y Combinator Fellowship, Morgan Stanley and a number of other investors.

FreeWill

While estate planning is a topic many don’t like to think about, it’s a critical issue for managing cross-generational wealth. But will drafting can often be very complex, time-consuming and costly, requiring hours of legal consultation and coordination between various parties.

Founded by two former classmates at Stanford Business School, FreeWill looks to simplify the estate-planning process by providing a free online platform that automates will drafting, in a similar function to what TurboTax does for taxes. Using FreeWill, users can quickly set allocations for their estate and select personal recipients, charitable donations, executor specifications and other ancillary requests. The platform then creates a finalized legal document that is legally valid in all 50 states, to which users can also quickly make changes and replace without incurring expensive legal costs.

FreeWill is able to provide the platform to consumers for free due to the proceeds it receives from its nonprofit customers, who pay to be featured on the platform as a partner organization. FreeWill offers a compelling value proposition for partnering companies. By acting as a channel to funnel user donations to listed organizations, FreeWill has been able to drive a 600 percent increase in charitable giving to partner organizations on average. FreeWill also provides partner organizations with backing analytics that allow nonprofits to track bequests and donors through monthly reports. 

FreeWill currently boasts an impressive roster of 75 paying nonprofit partners that include American Red Cross, Amnesty International and many others. In the long-run it hopes to be the go-to solution for financial and legal end-of-life planning for investment advisors, life insurance and employee benefits providers.

Shoobs

Shoobs is looking to be the go-to platform for local “urban” events, which the company defined as events centered on local nightlife, comedy and concerts in the hip-hop, R&B and reggae genres to name a few. But unlike the genre-agnostic, transaction-focused event management platforms that can make the space seem pretty crowded, Shoobs focused on providing genre-specific even discovery. Shoobs matches urban event goers with artists of their choice and related smaller-scale events that can be harder to discover, acting as a form of curation, quality control and discovery.

For event organizers, Shoobs helps provide digital ticketing and promotion services, with event recommendation capabilities that target the most promising potential customers. Through its offering to event organizers, Shoobs is able to monetize its services through ticket sale commission, advertising and brand partnerships.

Since its initial launch in London, Shoobs notes it has become one of the top urban events platforms in the city, with an extensive base of recurring registered users and event organizers. After previously working with AEG for its London launch, Shoobs is looking to expand stateside with the help of organizers like Live Nation. Shoobs joins a long list of promising Y Combinator alumni companies with YC also acting as one of Shoobs’ initial investors.

Other presenting companies included:

Morgan Stanley Multicultural Innovation Lab

  • BeautyLynk “is an on-demand hair and makeup service provider, specializing in customizable services for women.”
  • Broadway Roulette “is an events marketplace that pairs consumers with surprise cultural events, beginning with Broadway theater.”
  • CariClub “is an enterprise software platform to connect young professionals with nonprofit opportunities.”
  • COI Energy Services “is an integrated platform for electric utilities and business users to optimize and manage energy usage.”
  • CoSign “is an API and application that allows anyone to create, distribute and monetize visual content.”
  • Goalsetter “is a goals-based gifting, savings and investing platform designed for children.”
  • myLAB Box “offers customizable at-home health-test kits and relevant telemedicine consultations / prescription services.”

HearstLab

  • Priori “is a global legal marketplace changing the way in-house teams find, hire and manage outside counsel.”
  • TRENCH “is an online fashion marketplace that makes use of the unworn items in every woman’s closet.”

Newark Venture Partners Labs

  • Floss Bar “is a new type of preventive brand for oral health care. The company offers high-quality, routine dental care across flexible locations at thoughtful prices.”
  • Upsider “is a software solution allowing recruiters to leverage AI technology to identify a comprehensive set of candidates who align with their business and role requirements, resulting in a more strategic understanding of the best possible talent for the job.”

PS27 Ventures

  • BlueWave Technologies “is a cleantech company and the creators of the BlueWave™ Cleaning System — a water-free, detergent-free and chemical-free plasma device that cleans items that are extremely hard or impossible to clean with a washer and dryer.”
  • OnPay Solutions “focuses exclusively on business-to-business payments. They create payment software and offer payment web services to enhance efficiency and productivity for Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivable.”

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