Sep
20
2021
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Airwallex raises $200M at a $4B valuation to double down on business banking

Business, now more than ever before, is going digital, and today a startup that’s building a vertically integrated solution to meet business banking needs is announcing a big round of funding to tap into the opportunity. Airwallex — which provides business banking services directly to businesses themselves as well as via a set of APIs that power other companies’ fintech products — has raised $200 million, a Series E round of funding that values the Australian startup at $4 billion.

Lone Pine Capital is leading the round, with new backers G Squared and Vetamer Capital Management, and previous backers 1835i Ventures (formerly ANZi), DST Global, Salesforce Ventures and Sequoia Capital China also participating.

The funding brings the total raised by Airwallex — which has head offices in Hong Kong and Melbourne, Australia — to $700 million, including a $100 million injection that closed out its Series D just six months ago.

Airwallex will be using the funding both to continue investing in its product and technology as well as to continue its geographical expansion and to focus on some larger business targets. The company has started to make some headway into Europe and the U.K. and that will be one big focus, along with the U.S.

The quick succession of funding and rising valuation underscore Airwallex’s traction to date around what CEO and co-founder Jack Zhang describes as a vertically integrated strategy.

That involves two parts. First, Airwallex has built all the infrastructure for the business banking services that it provides directly to businesses with a focus on small and medium enterprise customers. Second, it has packaged up that infrastructure into a set of APIs that a variety of other companies use to provide financial services directly to their customers without needing to build those services themselves — the so-called “embedded finance” approach.

“We want to own the whole ecosystem,” Zhang said to me. “We want to be like the Apple of business finance.”

That seems to be working out so far for Airwallex. Revenues were up almost 150% for the first half of 2021 compared to a year before, with the company processing more than US$20 billion for a global client portfolio that has quadrupled in size. In addition to tens of thousands of SMEs, it also, via APIs, powers financial services for other companies like GOAT, Papaya Global and Stake.

Airwallex got its start like many of the strongest startups do: It was built to solve a problem that the founders encountered themselves. In the case of Airwallex, Zhang tells me he had actually been working on a previous startup idea. He wanted to build the “Blue Bottle Coffee” of Asia Pacific out of Australia, and it involved buying and importing a lot of different materials, packaging and, of course, coffee from all around the world.

“We found that making payments as a small business was slow and expensive,” he said, since it involved banks in different countries and different banking systems, manual efforts to transfer money between them and many days to clear the payments. “But that was also my background — payments and trading — and so I decided that it was a much more fascinating problem for me to work on and resolve.”

Eventually one of his co-founders in the coffee effort came along, with the four co-founders of Airwallex ultimately including Zhang, along with Xijing Dai, Lucy Liu and Max Li.

It was 2014, and Airwallex got attention from VCs early on in part for being in the right place at the right time. A wave of startups building financial services for SMBs were definitely gaining ground in North America and Europe, filling a long-neglected hole in the technology universe, but there was almost nothing of the sort in the Asia Pacific region, and in those earlier days solutions were highly regionalized.

From there it was a no-brainer that starting with cross-border payments, the first thing Airwallex tackled, would soon grow into a wider suite of banking services involving payments and other cross-border banking services.

“In the last six years, we’ve built more than 50 bank integrations and now offer payments across 95 countries, payments through a partner network,” he added, with 43 of those offering real-time transactions. From that, it moved on to bank accounts and “other primitive stuff” with card issuance and more, he said, eventually building an end-to-end payment stack. 

Airwallex has tens of thousands of customers using its financial services directly, and they make up about 40% of its revenues today. The rest is the interesting turn the company decided to take to expand its business.

Airwallex had built all of its technology from the ground up itself, and it found that — given the wave of new companies looking for more ways to engage customers and become their one-stop shop — there was an opportunity to package that tech up in a set of APIs and sell that on to a different set of customers, those who also provided services for small businesses. That part of the business now accounts for 60% of Airwallex’s business, Zhang said, and is growing faster in terms of revenues. (The SMB business is growing faster in terms of customers, he said.)

A lot of embedded finance startups that base their business around building tech to power other businesses tend to stay at arm’s length from offering financial services directly to consumers. The explanation I have heard is that they do not wish to compete against their customers. Zhang said that Airwallex takes a different approach, by being selective about the customers they partner with, so that the financial services they offer would never be the kind that would not be in direct competition. The GOAT marketplace for sneakers, or Papaya Global’s HR platform are classic examples of this.

However, as Airwallex continues to grow, you can’t help but wonder whether one of those partners might like to gobble up all of Airwallex and take on some of that service provision role itself. In that context, it’s very interesting to see Salesforce Ventures returning to invest even more in the company in this round, given how widely the company has expanded from its early roots in software for salespeople into a massive platform providing a huge range of cloud services to help people run their businesses.

For now, it’s been the combination of its unique roots in Asia Pacific, plus its vertical approach of building its tech from the ground up, plus its retail acumen that has impressed investors and may well see Airwallex stay independent and grow for some time to come.

“Airwallex has a clear competitive advantage in the digital payments market,” said David Craver, MD at Lone Pine Capital, in a statement. “Its unique Asia-Pacific roots, coupled with its innovative infrastructure, products and services, speak volumes about the business’ global growth opportunities and its impressive expansion in the competitive payment providers space. We are excited to invest in Airwallex at this dynamic time, and look forward to helping drive the company’s expansion and success worldwide.”

Updated to note that the coffee business was in Australia, not Hong Kong.

Sep
15
2021
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Zonos banks $69M to develop APIs for democratizing cross-border commerce

Cross-border commerce company Zonos raised $69 million in a Series A, led by Silversmith Capital Partners, to continue building its APIs that auto classify goods and calculate an accurate total landed cost on international transactions.

St. George, Utah-based Zonos is classifying the round as a minority investment that also included individual investors Eric Rea, CEO of Podium, and Aaron Skonnard, co-founder and CEO of Pluralsight. The Series A is the first outside capital Zonos has raised since it was founded in 2009, Clint Reid, founder and CEO, told TechCrunch.

As Reid explained it, “total landed cost” refers to the duties, taxes, import and shipping fees someone from another country might pay when purchasing items from the U.S. However, it is often difficult for businesses to figure out the exact cost of those fees.

Global cross-border e-commerce was estimated to be over $400 billion in 2018, but is growing at twice the rate of domestic e-commerce. This is where Zonos comes in: The company’s APIs, apps and plugins simplify cross-border sales by providing an accurate final price a consumer pays for an item on an international purchase. Businesses can choose which one or multiple shipping carriers they want to work with and even enable customers to choose at the time of purchase.

“Businesses can’t know all of a country’s laws,” Reid added. “Our mission is to create trust in global trade. If you are transparent, you bring trust. This was traditionally thought to be a shipping problem, but it is really a technology problem.”

As part of the investment Todd MacLean, managing partner at Silversmith Capital Partners, joined the Zonos board of directors. One of the things that attracted MacLean to the company was that Reid was building a company outside of Silicon Valley and disrupting global trade far from any port.

He says while looking into international commerce, he found people wound up being charged additional fees after they have already purchased the item, leading to bad customer experiences, especially when a merchant is trying to build brand loyalty.

Even if someone chooses not to purchase the item due to the fees being too high, MacLean believes the purchasing experience will be different because the pricing and shipping information was provided up front.

“Our diligence said Zonos is the only player to take the data that exists out there and make sense of it,” MacLean said. “Customers love it — we got the most impressive customer references because this demand is already out there, and they are seeing more revenue and their customers have more loyalty because it just works.”

In fact, it is common for companies to see 25% to 30% year over year increase in sales, Reid added. He went on to say that due to fees associated with shipping, it doesn’t always mean an increase in revenue for companies. There may be a small decrease, but a longer lifetime value with customers.

Going after venture capital at this time was important to Reid, who saw global trade becoming more complex as countries added new tax laws and stopped using other trade regulations. However, it was not just about getting the funding, but finding the right partner that recognizes that this problem won’t be solved in the next five years, but will need to be in it for the long haul, which Reid said he saw in Silversmith.

The new investment provides fuel for Zonos to grow in product development and go-to-market while also expanding its worldwide team into Europe and Asia Pacific. Eighteen months ago, the company had 30 employees, and now there are over 100. It also has more than 1,500 customers around the world and provides them with millions of landed cost quotes every day.

“Right now, we are the leader for APIs in cross-border e-commerce, but we need to also be the technology leader regardless of the industry,” Reid added. “We can’t just accept that we are good enough, we need to be better at doing this. We are looking at expanding into additional markets because it is more than just servicing U.S. companies, but need to be where our customers are.”

 

Aug
24
2021
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Ramp and Brex draw diverging market plans with M&A strategies

Earlier today, spend management startup Ramp said it has raised a $300 million Series C that valued it $3.9 billion. It also said it was acquiring Buyer, a “negotiation-as-a-service” platform that it believes will help customers save money on purchases and SaaS products.

The round and deal were announced just a week after competitor Brex shared news of its own acquisition — the $50 million purchase of Israeli fintech startup Weav. That deal was made after Brex’s founders invested in Weav, which offers a “universal API for commerce platforms”.

From a high level, all of the recent deal-making in corporate cards and spend management shows that it’s not enough to just help companies track what employees are expensing these days. As the market matures and feature sets begin to converge, the players are seeking to differentiate themselves from the competition.

But the point of interest here is these deals can tell us where both companies think they can provide and extract the most value from the market.

These differences come atop another layer of divergence between the two companies: While Brex has instituted a paid software tier of its service, Ramp has not.

Earning more by spending less

Let’s start with Ramp. Launched in 2019, the company is a relative newcomer in the spend management category. But by all accounts, it’s producing some impressive growth numbers. As our colleague Mary Ann Azevedo wrote this morning:

Since the beginning of 2021, the company says it has seen its number of cardholders on its platform increase by 5x, with more than 2,000 businesses currently using Ramp as their “primary spend management solution.” The transaction volume on its corporate cards has tripled since April, when its last raise was announced. And, impressively, Ramp has seen its transaction volume increase year over year by 1,000%, according to CEO and co-founder Eric Glyman.

Ramp’s focus has always been on helping its customers save money: It touts a 1.5% cashback reward for all purchases made through its cards, and says its dashboard helps businesses identify duplicitous subscriptions and license redundancies. Ramp also alerts customers when they can save money on annual vs. monthly subscriptions, which it says has led many customers to do away with established T&E platforms like Concur or Expensify.

All told, the company claims that the average customer saves 3.3% per year on expenses after switching to its platform — and all that is before it brings Buyer into the fold.

Aug
04
2021
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Enterprise AI 2.0: The acceleration of B2B AI innovation has begun

Two decades after businesses first started deploying AI solutions, one can argue that they’ve made little progress in achieving significant gains in efficiency and profitability relative to the hype that drove initial expectations.

On the surface, recent data supports AI skeptics. Almost 90% of data science projects never make it to production; only 20% of analytics insights through 2022 will achieve business outcomes; and even companies that have developed an enterprisewide AI strategy are seeing failure rates of up to 50%.

But the past 25 years have only been the first phase in the evolution of enterprise AI — or what we might call Enterprise AI 1.0. That’s where many businesses remain today. However, companies on the leading edge of AI innovation have advanced to the next generation, which will define the coming decade of big data, analytics and automation — Enterprise AI 2.0.

The difference between these two generations of enterprise AI is not academic. For executives across the business spectrum — from healthcare and retail to media and finance — the evolution from 1.0 to 2.0 is a chance to learn and adapt from past failures, create concrete expectations for future uses and justify the rising investment in AI that we see across industries.

Two decades from now, when business leaders look back to the 2020s, the companies who achieved Enterprise AI 2.0 first will have come to be big winners in the economy, having differentiated their services, scooped up market share and positioned themselves for ongoing innovation.

Framing the digital transformations of the future as an evolution from Enterprise AI 1.0 to 2.0 provides a conceptual model for business leaders developing strategies to compete in the age of automation and advanced analytics.

Enterprise AI 1.0 (the status quo)

Starting in the mid-1990s, AI was a sector marked by speculative testing, experimental interest and exploration. These activities occurred almost exclusively in the domain of data scientists. As Gartner wrote in a recent report, these efforts were “alchemy … run by wizards whose talents will not scale in the organization.”

Jul
23
2021
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Payments company Paystone raises $23.8M to help service-based businesses engage with customers

Paystone, a payments and integrated software company, secured another strategic investment this year, this time $23.8 million ($30 million CAD) from Crédit Mutuel Equity, the private equity arm of Crédit Mutuel Alliance Fédérale.

The Canada-based company got its start in 2008 as the payment processing company Zomaron, and rebranded itself as Paystone in 2019. Today it provides electronic payments and customer engagement technology to businesses, particularly those that provide services, CEO Tarique Al-Ansari told TechCrunch.

“Paystone is on a mission to help businesses grow, and we were enthralled by their commitment to that mission and their focus on service-oriented verticals,” said Léa Perge, investor at Crédit Mutuel Equity in Canada, via email.

While most of the company’s peers focus on product companies, Al-Ansari saw how underserved the service side was: their needs are different, and unlike retail, aren’t looking to sell online. Rather, they need an online presence and digital marketing to engage with customers, but their focus is being findable and having content that tells people why they should do business with them.

Paystone provides the marketing through content, help with reviews and with loyalty and rewards programs. However, rather than reward for spending, Paystone rewards for behavior. Refer a friend, get a reward. Write a review, get a reward. Al-Ansari calls it “payments as a benefit.” Referrals and reviews are how businesses become more findable, and the more content that’s out there, the more it helps people consider the business trustworthy, he added.

The new funding gives Canada-based Paystone total funds raised in 2021 of $78.8 million in a mix of debt and equity. It raised $54.9 million in January, funds that were barely touched as of yet, Al-Ansari said.

Though he wasn’t actively seeking new funds, Al-Ansari had been speaking with Crédit Mutuel Equity, which used to be CIC Capital Canada, prior to the pandemic, and their deal was put on hold.

Crédit Mutuel Equity came back with similar interest, and taking into account the kind of talent Paystone wanted to go after and its acquisition strategy — the company has already acquired five companies — Al-Ansari decided to take the additional funds. He said it gives the company options to hire more and double down on building the company, as well as enough capital to look for more acquisitions.

This year, Paystone entered the U.S. market for the first time and will do a proper launch later this year. The company has over 30,000 merchant locations on its platform throughout North America, and Al-Ansari expects that to grow by 5,000 this year. The company has 150 employees currently, and another 50 are expected to come on board by the end of the year.

In addition, Al-Ansari expects growth to accelerate for the rest of the year. The company processes around $6 billion in credit card payments and is on track to bring in $55.7 million in revenue this year. It is cash flow positive, residuals from the company’s origins of being bootstrapped, he said.

“We want to become the go-to destination for service businesses to set up a digital presence to accept payments and provide loyalty and rewards,” Al-Ansari said. “We will do this by solidifying our market position and growing our platform with the tools that customers want.”

 

Jul
23
2021
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Paystand banks $50M to make B2B payments cashless and with no fees

It’s pretty easy for individuals to send money back and forth, and there are lots of cash apps from which to choose. On the commercial side, however, one business trying to send $100,000 the same way is not as easy.

Paystand wants to change that. The Scotts Valley, California-based company is using cloud technology and the Ethereum blockchain as the engine for its Paystand Bank Network that enables business-to-business payments with zero fees.

The company raised $50 million Series C funding led by NewView Capital, with participation from SoftBank’s SB Opportunity Fund and King River Capital. This brings the company’s total funding to $85 million, Paystand co-founder and CEO Jeremy Almond told TechCrunch.

During the 2008 economic downturn, Almond’s family lost their home. He decided to go back to graduate school and did his thesis on how commercial banking could be better and how digital transformation would be the answer. Gleaning his company vision from the enterprise side, Almond said what Venmo does for consumers, Paystand does for commercial transactions between mid-market and enterprise customers.

“Revenue is the lifeblood of a business, and money has become software, yet everything is in the cloud except for revenue,” he added.

He estimates that almost half of enterprise payments still involve a paper check, while fintech bets heavily on cards that come with 2% to 3% transaction fees, which Almond said is untenable when a business is routinely sending $100,000 invoices. Paystand is charging a flat monthly rate rather than a fee per transaction.

Paystand’s platform. Image Credits: Paystand

On the consumer side, companies like Square and Stripe were among the first wave of companies predominantly focused on accounts payable and then building business process software on top of an existing infrastructure.

Paystand’s view of the world is that the accounts receivables side is harder and why there aren’t many competitors. This is why Paystand is surfing the next wave of fintech, driven by blockchain and decentralized finance, to transform the $125 trillion B2B payment industry by offering an autonomous, cashless and feeless payment network that will be an alternative to cards, Almond said.

Customers using Paystand over a three-year period are able to yield average benefits like 50% savings on the cost of receivables and $850,000 savings on transaction fees. The company is seeing a 200% increase in monthly network payment value and customers grew two-fold in the past year.

The company said it will use the new funding to continue to grow the business by investing in open infrastructure. Specifically, Almond would like to reboot digital finance, starting with B2B payments, and reimagine the entire CFO stack.

“I’ve wanted something like this to exist for 20 years,” Almond said. “Sometimes it is the unsexy areas that can have the biggest impacts.”

As part of the investment, Jazmin Medina, principal at NewView Capital, will join Paystand’s board. She told TechCrunch that while the venture firm is a generalist, it is rooted in fintech and fintech infrastructure.

She also agrees with Almond that the B2B payments space is lagging in terms of innovation and has “strong conviction” in what Almond is doing to help mid-market companies proactively manage their cash needs.

“There is a wide blue ocean of the payment industry, and all of these companies have to be entirely digital to stay competitive,” Medina added. “There is a glaring hole if your revenue is holding you back because you are not digital. That is why the time is now.”

 

Jul
21
2021
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Ethos picks up $100M at a $2.7B+ valuation for a big data platform to improve life insurance accessibility

More than half of the U.S. population has stayed away from considering life insurance because they believe it’s probably too expensive, and the most common way to buy it today is in person. A startup that’s built a platform that aims to break down those conventions and democratize the process by making life insurance (and the benefits of it) more accessible is today announcing significant funding to fuel its rapidly growing business.

Ethos, which uses more than 300,000 data points online to determine a person’s eligibility for life insurance policies, which are offered as either term or whole life packages starting at $8/month, has picked up $100 million from a single investor, SoftBank Vision Fund 2. Peter Colis, Ethos’s CEO and co-founder, said that the funding brings the startup’s valuation to over $2.7 billion.

This is a quick jump for the company: It was only two months ago that Ethos picked up a $200 million equity round at a valuation of just over $2 billion.

It has now raised $400 million to date and has amassed a very illustrious group of backers. In addition to SoftBank they include General Catalyst, Sequoia Capital, Accel, GV, Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, Glade Brook Capital Partners, Will Smith and Robert Downey Jr.

This latest injection of funding — which will be used to hire more people and continue to expand its product set into adjacent areas of insurance like critical illness coverage — was unsolicited, Colis said, but comes on the heels of very rapid growth.

Ethos — which is sold currently only in the U.S. across 49 states — has seen both revenues and user numbers grow by over 500% compared to a year ago, and it’s on track to issue some $20 billion in life insurance coverage this year. And it is approaching $100 million in annualized growth profit. Ethos itself is not yet profitable, Colis said.

There are a couple of trends going on that speak to a wide opportunity for Ethos at the moment.

The first of these is the current market climate: Globally we are still battling the COVID-19 global health pandemic, and one impact of that — in particular given how COVID-19 has not spared any age group or demographic — has been more awareness of our mortality. That inevitably leads at least some part of the population to considering something like life insurance coverage that might not have thought about it previously.

However, Colis is a little skeptical on the lasting impact of that particular trend. “We saw an initial surge of demand in the COVID period, but then it regressed back to normal,” he said in an interview. Those who were more inclined to think about life insurance around COVID-19 might have come around to considering it regardless: It was being driven, he said, by those with pre-existing health conditions going into the pandemic.

That, interestingly, brings up the second trend, which goes beyond our present circumstances, and Colis believes will have the more lasting impact.

While there have been a number of startups, and even incumbent providers, looking to rethink other areas of insurance such as car, health and property coverage, life insurance has been relatively untouched, especially in some markets like the U.S. Traditionally, someone taking out life insurance goes through a long vetting process, which is not all carried out online and can involve medical examinations and more, and yes, it can be expensive: The stereotype you might best know is that only wealthier people take out life insurance policies.

Much like companies in fintech that have rethought how loan applications (and payback terms) can be rethought and evaluated afresh using big data — pulling in a new range of information to form a picture of the applicant and the likelihood of default or not — Ethos is among the companies that is applying that same concept to a different problem. The end result is a much faster turnaround for applications, a considerably cheaper and more flexible offer (term life insurance lasts only as long as a person pays for it), and generally a lot more accessibility for everyone potentially interested. That pool of data is growing all the time.

“Every month, we get more intelligent,” said Colis.

There is also the matter of what Ethos is actually selling. The company itself is not an insurance provider but an “insuretech” — similar to how neobanks use APIs to integrate banking services that have been built by others, which they then wrap with their own customer service, personalization and more — Ethos integrates with third-party insurance underwriters, providing customer service, more efficient onboarding (no in-person medical exams for example) and personalization (both in packages and pricing) around them. Given how staid and hard it is to get more traditional policies, it’s essentially meant completely open water for Ethos in terms of finding and securing new customers.

Ethos’s rise comes at a time when we are seeing other startups approaching and rethinking life insurance also in the U.S. and further afield. Last week, YuLife in the U.K. raised a big round to further build out its own take on life insurance, which is to sell policies that are linked to an individual’s own health and wellness practices — the idea being that this will make you happier and give more reason to pay for a policy that otherwise feels like some dormant investment; but also that it could help you live longer (Sproutt is another also looking at how to emphasize the “life” aspect of life insurance). Others like  DeadHappy and BIMA are, like Ethos, rethinking accessibility of life insurance for a wider set of demographics.

There are some signs that Ethos is catching on with its mission to expand that pool, not just grow business among the kind of users who might have already been considering and would have taken out life insurance policies. The startup said that more than 40% of its new policy holders in the first half of 2021 had incomes of $60,000 or less, and nearly 40% of new policy holders were under the age of 40. The professions of those customers also speak to that democratization: The top five occupations, it said, were homemaker, insurance agent, business owner, teacher and registered nurse.

That traction is likely one reason why SoftBank came knocking.

“Ethos is leveraging data and its vertically integrated tech stack to fundamentally transform life insurance in the U.S.,” said Munish Varma, managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement. “Through a fast and user-friendly online application process, the company can accurately underwrite and insure a broad segment of customers quickly. We are excited to partner with Peter Colis and the exceptional team at Ethos.”

Jul
20
2021
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Commercial real estate lending startup Lev brings in $30M on a $130M valuation

Commercial real estate has been slow to embrace technology; though it has an addressable financing market of more than $40 billion, putting together a deal is still mostly manual, paper-heavy and complicated.

New York-based Lev is taking on this problem by automating workflows online and gathering hundreds of millions of data points into machine learning software to ensure financing accuracy. To do this, the commercial real estate financing transaction platform raised $30 million to give it a $130 million valuation just two years into its inception.

The latest financing comes four months after the company raised $10 million in seed funding led by NFX. Greenspring led the latest round, with participation from First American Title. Existing investors NFX, Canaan Partners, JLL Spark, Animo Ventures and Ludlow Ventures also joined in to give Lev total investments of more than $34 million, according to Crunchbase data.

Lev founder and CEO Yaakov Zar previously co-founded Boston-based Dispatch, which built tools for home services businesses. It was when he and his wife went through the homebuying process — and their mortgage fell through — that Zar decided to look at real estate financing.

He channeled his frustration into becoming a licensed mortgage loan originator. After relocating to New York, Zar was helping a friend at a nonprofit organization refinance their building and got a firsthand look at what he said was a fragmented commercial real estate mortgage industry.

Companies like Blend are addressing the problem of real estate lending, Zar told TechCrunch, but very few are focusing on commercial real estate, where lending is sensitive to interest rates and total amortization. In addition, property owners have a burden of refinancing every five to 10 years.

“Legacy businesses like JLL, which is an investor, Cushman Wakefield and CBRE work on lending, but they are much more ‘relationship focused’ than tech focused,” Zar said. “We think that it is a necessary part because the deals are so large and complex that you need a relationship for them, but transactions less than $1 billion are pretty straightforward. On experience and product, no one is close to us.”

Initially, Zar and his team wanted to build the “Rocket Mortgage of commercial real estate lending,” but found that to be difficult because real estate brokers are putting together their own pitch books for lenders. Instead, Lev is building a technology platform of more than 5,000 lenders with information on what projects they like to finance. It then analyzes a customer’s portfolio and connects them in minutes with the right lender, taking 1% of the loan amount for each transaction as payment. Lev is also working to be able to close deals online.

Zar wasn’t looking for funding when he was approached by investors, but said he was introduced to some people who liked the company’s growth and trajectory and decided to accept the funding offer.

He intends to use the new funding on product development, with the aim of giving a term sheet in seconds and closing a loan in seven days. Right now it can take a week or two to get the term sheet and 45 to 90 days to close a loan.

The company has about 40 employees currently in its New York headquarters, Miami R&D center, Los Angeles outpost and remotely. Continued investments will be made to expand the team.

Lev grew 10 times in volume in the past year, closing approximately $100 million of loans in 2020. Zar expects to close over $1 billion in 2021.

“Customers come back to us repeatedly, and there are a ton of referrals,” Zar said. “We want to be the platform on which capital market transactions are processed. You need an advantage to network and find great deals. I don’t want to mess with that, but when you find it, bring it to us, we will close it and provide the asset management with the best option to close online and manage the deal from a single platform.”

Meanwhile, Pete Flint, general partner at NFX, told TechCrunch that he got to know the Lev team over the last 18 months, checking in on the company during various stages of the global pandemic, and was impressed at how the company navigated it.

As co-founder of Trulia, he saw firsthand the problems in the real estate industry over search and discovery, but as that problem was being solved, the focus shifted to financing. NFX is also an investor in Tomo and Ribbon, which both focus on residential financing.

Wanting to see what opportunities were on the commercial real estate side, Flint heard Lev’s name come up more and more among brokers and industry insiders.

“As we got to know the Lev team, we recognized that they were the best team out there to solve this problem,” Flint said. “We are also among an amazing group of people complementing the round. The folks that are deep industry insiders will put a helpful lens on strategy and business development opportunities.”

 

Jul
14
2021
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Railsbank raises $70M to build out its fintech-as-a-service platform

Financial services as a service — where entities like neobanks, retailers and others can create and sell their own financial products by way of a few lines of code and APIs — has been one of the bigger trends in the world of fintech in recent years, with embedded finance on its way to being a $7.2 trillion market by 2030, according to a forecast from Bain Capital. Now, one of the companies building and providing those APIs is announcing some growth funding to expand.

Railsbank, which builds APIs for banking, payment cards and credit products for use by fintechs but also a wide range of other kinds of businesses, has raised $70 million in new equity funding, money that the London startup plans to use to continue growing internationally and to add more features to its product set.

“Our mission is to reinvent, unbundle and democratise access to the complex, opaque and byzantine 70-year-old credit card market, which is worth $4 trillion in the U.S. alone,” Nigel Verdon, CEO and co-founder of Railsbank, told TechCrunch in an interview last year. Verdon is a repeat entrepreneur, with one of his previous companies being Currency Cloud.

Railsbank not disclosing its valuation, but Verdon hints that it is in the high hundreds of millions and close to $1 billion.

“As a policy, we rarely talk about valuation as we prefer to talk about customers,” he told TechCrunch today. “Valuation is a very inward-facing and self-centered metric. Saying that, near-unicorn would best describe us today.”

As a point of comparison data from PitchBook noted that the company was valued at just under $200 million in its last round at the end of last year (we reported on it here).

This latest round is being led by Anthos Capital, a previous backer of the company, with Central Capital, Cohen and Company, and Chris Adelsbach’s fund Outrun Ventures, as well as other unnamed previous backers also participating. Central Capital is a strategic investor: It’s the VC arm of the largest privately held bank in Indonesia, while Cohen and Company is the founder of Bancorp. Those backers speak to where Railsbank is targeting its services and who is interested in potentially working with it.

Banking as a service, and other financial products as a service, has become one of the most significant building blocks not just in the world of fintech, but in financial services overall. As with Twilio or Sinch in communications, or Stripe in payments, the idea here is that financial specialists have built out the complicated infrastructure and partnerships that underpin a product like a credit card, or a banking account.

This is then packaged up in a service that can be integrated into another one by way of an API, and the small amount of code needed to add it to another platform. In turn, that API can be used not just by another financial services company that is consumer- or business-facing, but by any kind of company that sees offering a financial product as part of a bigger customer service and loyalty play. That could mean a retailer offering its own-brand credit card, but also a “neobank” that is building a slick front end with great customer service and personalization, without needing to build the now-commoditized banking infrastructure underneath it to run it.

Railsbank is far from being the only company that has identified and built around this concept. Other big players include Rapyd, which raised a big round at a $2.5 billion valuation earlier this year; Unit, which also has been picking up funding and growing; FintechOS, which really does what its name says; and the startup 10x was even built for incumbent players to also have access to lighter fintech as a service.

Railsbank believes its distinct from many of its would-be competitors in part because it has built a lot of its own infrastructure from the ground up (hence the “rails” in its name), “bypassing” legacy players, in contrast to others that are built as software that still ultimately runs on top of stacks (and inefficiencies) of those older providers. This also means that it is regulated as a financial institution.

Railsbank is also in the business of making some acquisitions in order to grow its business, for example acquiring the U.K. business of German fintech Wirecard when it was crashing due to financial malpractices. And it doesn’t build everything from scratch: Earlier this year it also partnered with Plaid to embed some of its services within Railsbank’s.

Railsbank does not disclose a full list of customer names but has case studies on a number of smaller clients that speak to just how widely proliferated financial services are today. They include GoSolo, Kyshi and SimpledCard.

“The market has evolved so rapidly since we founded the world’s first BaaS business, the Bancorp,” noted Betsy Cohen, chairman of Fintech Masala and founder of Bancorp, in a statement. “As we move into the $7 trillion embedded finance market, it has been great watching Railsbank’s growth story. With this investment, it’s a privilege to continue to be part of the journey with a global leader like Railsbank.”

Jul
05
2021
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Pleo raises $150M at a $1.7B valuation for its new approach to managing expenses for SMBs

Whether you are part of the accounting department, or just any employee at an organization, managing expenses can be a time-consuming and error-filled, yet also quite mundane, part of your job. Today, a startup called Pleo — which has built a platform that can help some of that work more smoothly, by way of a vertically integrated system that includes payment cards, expense management software, and integrated reimbursement and pay-out services — is announcing a big round of growth funding to expand its business after seeing strong traction.

The Copenhagen-based startup has raised $150 million — money that it will be using to continue building out more features for its users, and for business development. The round, which sets a record for being the largest Series C for a Danish startup, values Pleo at $1.7 billion, the startup has confirmed.

There are around 17,000 small and medium businesses now using Pleo, with companies at the medium end of that numbering around 1,000 employees. Now with Pleo moving into slightly larger customers (up to 5,000 employees, CEO Jeppe Rindom, said), the startup has set an ambitious target of reaching 1 million users by 2025, a very lucrative goal, considering that expenses management is estimated to be a $80 billion market in Europe (with the global opportunity, of course, even bigger).

It will also be using the funds simply to expand its business. Pleo has around 330 employees today spread across London, Stockholm, Berlin and Madrid, as well as in Copenhagen, and it will be using some of the investment to grow that team and its reach.

Bain Capital Ventures and Thrive Capital co-led this round, a Series C. Previous backers, including Creandum, Kinnevik, Founders, Stripes and Seedcamp, also participated. Stripes led the startup’s Series B in 2019. It looks like this round was oversubscribed: the original intention had been to raise just $100 million.

Like other business processes, managing expenses and handling company spending has come a long way in the last many years.

Gone are the days where expenses inevitably involved collecting paper receipts and inputting them manually into a system in order to be reimbursed; now, expense management software links up with company-issued cards and taps into a range of automation tools to cut out some of the steps in the process, integrating with a company’s internal accounting policies to shuffle the process along a little less painfully. And there are a number of companies in this space, from older players like SAP’s Concur through to startups on the cusp of going public like Expensify as well as younger entrants bringing new technology into the process.

But, there is still lots more room for improvement. Rindom, Pleo’s CEO who co-founded the company with CTO Niccolo Perra, said the pair came up with the idea for Pleo on the back of years of working in fintech — both were early employees at the B2B supply chain startup Tradeshift — and seeing first-hand how short-changed, so to speak, small and medium businesses in particular were when it came to tools to handle their expenses.

Pleo’s approach has been to build, from the ground up, a system for those smaller businesses that integrate all the different stages of how an employee might spend money on behalf of the company.

Pleo starts with physical and virtual payment cards (which can be used in, for example, Apple Wallet) that are issued by Pleo (in partnership with MasterCard) to buy goods and services, which in turn are automatically itemized according to a company’s internal accounting systems, with the ability to work with e-receipts, but also let people use their phones to snap pictures of receipts when they are only on paper, if required. This is pretty much table stakes for expense software these days, but Pleo’s platform is going a couple of steps beyond that.

Users (or employers) can integrate a users’ own banking details to make it easier to get reimbursed when they have had to pay for something out of their own pocket; or conversely to pay for something that shouldn’t have been charged on the card. And if there are invoices to be paid at a later date from the time of purchase, these too can be actioned and set up within Pleo rather than having to liaise separately with an accounts payable department to get those settled. Higher priced tiers (beyond the basic service for up to five users) also lets a company set spending limits for individual users. Pricing is based on number of users, per month.

Pleo also has built fraud protection services into the platform to detect, for example, cases when a card number might have been compromised and is being used for non-work purposes.

What’s notable is that the startup has built all of the tech that it uses, including the payments feature, from the ground up, to have full control over the features and specifically to be able to add more of them more flexibly over time.

“In the beginning we ran with a partner in services like payments, but it didn’t allow us to move fast enough,” Rindom said in an interview. “So we decided to take all of that in-house.”

It seems like this opens the door to a lot of possibilities for how Pleo might evolve in the years ahead now that it’s focused on hyper-growth. However, Rindom added that whatever the next steps might be, they will remain focused on continuing to solve the expenses problem.

“When it comes to our infrastructure we use it only for ourselves,” he said. “We have no plans of selling [for example, payments] as a service, even if we do have a lot of other ideas for broadening our offerings.” Indeed, the ability to pay invoices was launched only in April of this year. “We come up with things all the time, but will launch only those relevant to customers.” For now, at least.

That focus and perhaps even more than that the execution and customer traction are what have brought investors around to backing a fintech out of Copenhagen.

“The future of work empowers employees with the tools they need to be effective, productive, and successful,” said Keri Gohman, a partner at Bain Capital Ventures, in a statement. “Pleo understands this critical shift for modern companies toward employee centricity—providing workers with a fun-to-use spend management app that automatically tracks their corporate spending and generates expense reports, paired with the powerful tools businesses need to create full visibility and management of every penny spent.”

Bain has been a pretty active investor in European fintech, also backing GoCardless in its recent round. “BCV invests in founders who aren’t afraid to tackle big problems, and Jeppe and Nicco saw a big challenge that employers faced—tracking all corporate spending and reconciling expenses back to the general ledger—and solved it with elegant technology that both employers and employees love,” added Merritt Hummer, a partner at Bain Capital Ventures.

Thrive is also a notable backer here, and it will be interesting to see how and if Pleo links up with others in the VC’s portfolio, which include companies like Plaid, Gong and Trade Republic.

“Pleo has already transformed the way that over 17,000 companies think about managing their expenses, saving them time and lowering costs while increasing transparency,” noted Kareem Zaki, a general partner at Thrive Capital, in a statement. “We are excited to partner closely with the Pleo team to help drive their next phase of growth.”

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