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
30
2020
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VTEX raises $225M at a $1.7B valuation for e-commerce solutions aimed at retailers and brands

Retailers and consumer brands are focused more than ever in their histories on using e-commerce channels to connect with customers: the global health pandemic has disrupted much of their traditional business in places like physical stores, event venues and restaurants, and vending machines, and accelerated the hunt for newer ways to sell goods and services. Today, a startup that’s been helping them build those bridges, specifically to expand into newer markets, is announcing a huge round of funding, underscoring the demand.

VTEX, which builds e-commerce solutions and strategies for retailers like Walmart and huge consumer names like AB InBev, Motorola, Stanley Black & Decker, Sony, Walmart, Whirlpool, Coca-Cola and Nestlé, has raised $225 million in new funding, valuing the company at $1.7 billion post-money.

The funding is being co-led by two investors, Tiger Global and Lone Pine Capital, with Constellation, Endeavour Catalyst and SoftBank also participating. It’s a mix of investors, with two leads, that offers a “signal” of what might come next for the startup, said Amit Shah, the company’s chief strategy officer and general manager for North America.

“We’ve seen them invest in big rounds right before companies go public,” he said. “Now, that’s not necessarily happening here right now, but it’s a signal.” The company has been profitable and plans to continue to be, Shah said (making it one example of a SoftBank investment that hasn’t gone sour). Revenues this year are up 114% with $8 billion in gross merchandise volume (GMV) processed over platforms it’s built.

Given that VTEX last raised money less than a year ago — a $140 million round led by SoftBank’s Latin American Innovation Fund — the valuation jump for the startup is huge. Shah confirmed to us that it represents a 4x increase on its previous valuation (which would have been $425 million).

The interest back in November from SoftBank’s Latin American fund stemmed from VTEX’s beginnings.

The company got its start building e-commerce storefronts and strategies for businesses that were hoping to break into Brazil — the B of the world’s biggest emerging “BRIC” markets — and the rest of Latin America. It made its name building Walmart in the region, and has continued to help run and develop that operation even after Walmart divested the asset, and it’s working with Walmart now in other regions outside the US, too, he added.

But since then, while the Latin American arm of the business has continued to thrive, the company has capitalized both on the funding it had picked up, and the current global climate for e-commerce solutions, to expand its business into more markets, specifically North America, EMEA and most recently Asia.

“We are today even more impressed by the quality and energy of the VTEX team than we were when we invested in the previous round,” said Marcello Silva at Constellation. “The best is yet to come. VTEX’s team is stronger than ever, VTEX’s product is stronger than ever, and we are still in the early stages of ecommerce penetration. We could not miss the opportunity to increase our exposure.”

Revenues were growing at a rate of 50% a year before the pandemic ahead of it’s more recent growth this year of 114%, Shah said. “Of course, we would prefer Covid-19 not to be here, but it has had a good effect on our business. The arc of e-commerce has grown has impacted revenues and created that additional level of investor interest.”

VTEX’s success has hinged not just on catering to companies that have up to now not prioritized their online channels, but in doing so in a way that is more unified.

Consumer packaged goods have been in a multi-faceted bind because of the fragmented way in which they have grown. A drinks brand will not only manufacture on a local level (and sometimes, as in the case of, say, Coca-Cola, use different ingredient formulations), but they will often have products that are only sold in select markets, and because the audiences are different, they’ve devise marketing and distribution strategies on a local level, too.

On top of all that, products like these have long relied on channels like retailers, restaurants, vending machines and more to get their products into the hands of consumers.

These days, of course, all of that has been disrupted: all the traditional channels they would have used to sell things are now either closed or seeing greatly reduced custom. And as for marketing: the rise of social networks has led to a globalization in messaging, where something can go viral all over the world and marketing therefore knows no regional boundaries.

So, all of this means that brands have to rethink everything around how they sell their products, and that’s where a company like VTEX steps in, building strategies and solutions that can be used in multiple regions. Among typical deals, it’s been working with AB InBev to develop a global commerce platform covering 50 countries (replacing multiple products from other vendors, typically competitors to VTEX include SAP, Shopify and Magento, and giving brands and others a viable route to market that doesn’t cut in the likes of Amazon).

“CPG companies are seeking to standardize and make their businesses and lives a little easier,” Shah said. Typical work that it does includes building marketplaces for retailers, or new e-commerce interfaces so that brands can better supply online and offline retailers, or sell directly to customers — for example, with new ways of ordering products to get delivered by others. Shah said that some 200 marketplaces have now been built by VTEX for its customers.

(Shah himself, it’s worth pointing out, has a pedigree in startups and in e-commerce. He founded an e-commerce analytics company called Jirafe, which was acquired by SAP, where he then became the chief revenue officer of SAP Hybris.)

“We are excited to grow quickly in new and existing markets, and offer even more brands a platform that embraces the future of commerce, which is about being collaborative, leveraging marketplaces, and delivering customer experiences that are second-to-none,” said Mariano Gomide de Faria, VTEX co-founder and co-CEO, in a statement. “This injection of funding will undoubtedly support us in achieving our mission to accelerate digital commerce transformation around the world.”

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