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Masayoshi Son resigns from board of Alibaba; defends SoftBank Group’s investment strategy

SoftBank Group founder Masayoshi Son said on Thursday he is leaving the board of Jack Ma’s Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group today, a month after Ma left the board of Son’s technology group.

Son said he sees the move as “graduating” from Alibaba Group’s board, his most successful investment to date, as he swiftly moved to defend the Japanese group’s investment strategy, which has been the subject of scrutiny and public mockery in recent quarters.

Son said his conglomerate’s holding has recovered to the pre-coronavirus outbreak levels. The firm has benefited from the rising value of Alibaba Group and its stake in Sprint, following the telecom operator’s merger with T-Mobile. Son said his firm has seen an internet rate of return (or IRR, a popular metric used by VC funds to demonstrate their performance) of 25%.

In a shareholder meeting today, he said he was worried that many people think that SoftBank is “finished” and are calling it “SoftPunku,” a colloquial used in Japan which means a broken thing. All combined, SoftBank’s shareholder value now stands at $218 billion, he said.

Son insisted that he was leaving the board of Alibaba Group, a position he has held since 2005, on good terms and that there hadn’t been any disagreements between him and Ma.

Son’s move follows Jack Ma, who co-founded Alibaba Group, leaving the board of SoftBank last month after assuming the position for 13 years. Son famously invested $20 million in Alibaba 20 years ago. Early this year, SoftBank still owned shares worth $100 billion in Alibaba.

A range of SoftBank’s recent investments has spooked the investment world. The firm, known for writing big checks, has publicly stated that its investment in ride-hailing giant Uber, office space manager WeWork, and a range of other startups has not provided the return it had hoped.

Several of these firms, including Oyo, a budget-lodging Indian startup, has moreover been hit hard by the pandemic.

Son, who has raised $20 billion by selling T-Mobile stake, said after factoring in other of his recent deals SoftBank had accumulated $35 billion or 80% of the total planned unloading of investments.

Investors in LatAm get bitten by the hotel investment bug as Ayenda raises $8.7 million

Some of Latin America’s leading venture capital investors are now backing hotel chains.

In fact, Ayenda, the largest hotel chain in Colombia, has raised $8.7 million in a new round of funding, according to the company.

Led by Kaszek Ventures, the round will support the continued expansion of Ayenda’s chain of hotels in Colombia and beyond. The hotel operator already has 150 hotels operating under its flag in Colombia and has recently expanded to Peru, according to a statement.

Financing came from Kaszek Ventures and strategic investors like Irelandia Aviation, Kairos, Altabix and BWG Ventures.

The company, which was founded in 2018, now has more than 4,500 rooms under its brand in Colombia and has become the biggest hotel chain in the country.

Investments in brick and mortar chains by venture firms are far more common in emerging markets than they are in North America. The investment in Ayenda mirrors big bets that SoftBank Group has made in the Indian hotel chain Oyo and an investment made by Tencent, Sequoia China, Baidu Capital and Goldman Sachs, in LvYue Group late last year, amounting to “several hundred million dollars”, according to a company statement.

“We’re seeking to invest in companies that are redefining the big industries and we found Ayenda, a team that is changing the hotel’s industry in an unprecedented way for the region”, said Nicolas Berman, Kaszek Ventures partner.

Ayenda works with independent hotels through a franchise system to help them increase their occupancy and services. The hotels have to apply to be part of the chain and go through an up to 30-day inspection process before they’re approved to open for business.

“With a broad supply of hotels with the best cost-benefit relationship, guests can travel more frequently, accelerating the economy,” says Declan Ryan, managing partner at Irelandia Aviation.

The company hopes to have more than 1 million guests in 2020 in their hotels. Rooms list at $20 per-night, including amenities and an around the clock customer support team.

Oyo’s story may be a cautionary tale for companies looking at expanding via venture investment for hotel chains. The once high-flying company has been the subject of some scathing criticism. As we wrote:

The New York Times  published an in-depth report on Oyo, a tech-enabled budget hotel chain and rising star in the Indian tech community. The NYT wrote that Oyo offers unlicensed rooms and has bribed police officials to deter trouble, among other toxic practices.

Whether Oyo, backed by billions from the SoftBank  Vision Fund, will become India’s WeWork is the real cause for concern. India’s startup ecosystem is likely to face a number of barriers as it grows to compete with the likes of Silicon Valley.

Oyo’s revenue surged in FY19, but loss widened, too

Budget-lodging startup Oyo reported a loss of $335 million on $951 million revenue globally for the financial year ending March 31, 2019, and pledged to cut down on its spending as the India-headquartered startup grows more cautious about its aggressive expansion.

The six-year-old startup’s growing revenue, up from $211 million in financial year ending March 31, 2018, is in line with the company’s ambitions to be in a clear path to profitability this year, said Abhishek Gupta, Global CFO of OYO Hotels & Homes, in a statement.

But the startup’s loss has widened, too. Its consolidated loss increased from 25% in FY18 to 35% in FY19, it said. In India, where Oyo clocked $604 million in revenue in FY19, it was able to reduce its loss to 14% (from 24%) of revenue in FY19 to $83 million.

The startup, which today operates more than 43,000 hotels with over a million rooms in 800 cities in 80 nations, said its expansion to China and other international markets contributed to the loss.

“These markets constituted 36.5% of the global revenues. While consistently improving operating economics in mature markets like India where it’s already seeing an improvement in gross margins, the company is determined to bring in the same fiscal discipline in emerging markets in the coming financial year,” the startup said in a statement.

Oyo has come under scrutiny in recent months for its aggressive expansion in a manner that some analysts have said is not sustainable. The startup, which rebrands and renovates independent budget hotels, has also engaged in sketchy ways to sign up new hotels, as documented by the New York Times earlier this year.

In recent months, Oyo executives have acknowledged that the startup grew too fast and is confronting a number of “teething issues.” Oyo has laid off at least 3,000 employees, mostly in India, in last three months.

Local Indian laws require every startup to disclose their annual financials. Most of them filed their financials in early October.

More to follow shortly…

Latin America Roundup: Loft raises $175M, SoftBank invests in Mexico’s Alphacredit and Rappi pulls back

Sophia Wood
Contributor

Sophia Wood is a principal at Magma Partners, a Latin America-focused seed-stage VC firm with offices in Latin America, Asia and the U.S. Sophia is also the co-founder of LatAm List, an English-language Latin American tech news source.

Brazil’s famously tricky real estate market has long drawn international investors to the region in search of tech solutions. This time, Brazilian startup Loft brought in a $175 million Series C from first-time investor in the region, Vulcan Capital (Paul Allen’s investment arm), alongside Andreessen Horowitz. Loft is also a16z’s first and only Brazilian investment. 

Co-founded by serial entrepreneurs and investors Mate Pencz and Florian Hagenbuch in 2018, Loft uses a proprietary algorithm to process transaction data and provide more transparent pricing for both buyers and sellers. The startup uses two models to help clients sell properties; either Loft will value the apartment for listing on the site, or they will offer to purchase the property from the buyer immediately. Many real estate platforms in the U.S. are shifting toward a similar iBuyer model; however, this system may be even more apt for the Latin American market, where property sales are notoriously untransparent, bureaucratic and tedious.

Loft will use the capital to expand to Rio de Janeiro in Q1 2020 and to Mexico City in Q2, bringing on at least 100 new employees in the process. It also plans to scale its financial products to include mortgages and insurance by the end of the year. 

AlphaCredit raises $125M from SoftBank

Mexican consumer lending startup AlphaCredit became SoftBank’s new Mexico bet this month, with a $125 million Series B round. AlphaCredit uses a programmed deduction system to provide rapid, online loans to individuals and small businesses in Mexico. To date, the startup has granted more than $1 billion in loans to small business clients in Mexico and Colombia, many of whom have never previously had access to financing. 

AlphaCredit’s programmed deductions system enables the startup to lower default rates, which in turn lowers interest rates. For more than eight years, AlphaCredit has encouraged financial inclusion in Mexico and Colombia through technology; this round of investment will enable the platform to consolidate its holding as one of the top lending platforms in the region. The investment is still subject to approval by Mexico’s competition authority, COFECE, which has previously blocked startup deals such as the Cornershop acquisition in 2019. 

SoftBank’s biggest bets back off in Latin America

While SoftBank is still rapidly deploying its Latin America-focused Innovation Fund, some of its largest companies are stepping on the brakes. In particular, SoftBank’s largest LatAm investment, Rappi, recently announced that it would lay off up to 6% of its workforce in an effort to cut costs and focus on their technology. The Colombian unicorn has been expanding at a breakneck pace throughout the region using a blitzscaling technique that has helped it reach nine countries, with 5,000 employees in just two years, including Ecuador in November 2019.

Rappi has stated that it will focus on technology and UX in 2020, explaining that the job cuts do not reflect its long-term growth strategy. However, Rappi is also facing legal action for alleged intellectual property theft. Mauricio Paba, José Mendoza and Jorge Uribe are suing Rappi CEO Simon Borrero and the company for stealing the idea for the Rappi platform while providing consulting for the three founders through his firm, Imaginamos. The case is currently being processed in Colombia and the U.S. 

One of SoftBank’s biggest bets in Asia, Oyo Rooms, is facing similar challenges. Just months after announcing their expansion into Mexico, Oyo fired thousands of employees in China and India. Oyo plans to be the largest hotel chain in Mexico by the end of 2020, according to a local spokesperson.

Argentina’s Agrofy breaks regional agtech records

With a $23 million Series B from SP Ventures, Fall Line Capital and Acre Venture Partners, Argentine agricultural supply marketplace Agrofy has raised the region’s largest round for an agtech startup to date. The platform provides transparency and ease for the agricultural industry, where users can buy everything from tractors to seeds. In four years, Agrofy has established itself as the market leader in agricultural e-commerce; it was also Fall Line Capital’s first investment outside of the U.S.

Agrofy is active in nine countries and receives more than five million visits per month, 60% of which come from Brazil. However, the startup faces the challenge of low connectivity in rural areas, where most of its customers live. The investment will go to improving the platform, as well as integrating new payment types directly into the site to help clients process their transactions more smoothly. 

News and Notes: Fanatiz, Pachama, Moons, Didi and IDB

The Miami-based sports-streaming platform Fanatiz raised $10 million in a Series A round from 777 Partners in January 2020 after registering 125% user growth since July 2019. Founded by Chilean Matias Rivera, Fanatiz provides legal international streaming of soccer and other sports through a personalized platform so that fans can follow their teams from anywhere in the world. The startup provided the Pope with an account so that he could follow his beloved team, San Lorenzo, from the Vatican. Fanatiz has previously received investment from Magma Partners and participated in 500 Startups’ Miami Scale program.

Conservation-tech startup Pachama raised $4.1 million from Silicon Valley investors to continue developing a carbon offset marketplace using drone and lidar data. Pachama was founded by Argentine entrepreneur Diego Saez-Gil in 2019 after he noticed the effects of deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon. After participating in Y Combinator in 2019, Pachama now has 23 sites in the U.S. and Latin America where scientists are working alongside the startup’s technology to certify forests for carbon sequestration projects. 

Mexico’s Moons, an orthodontics startup that provides low-cost invisible aligners, has raised $5 million from investors such as Jaguar Ventures, Tuesday Capital and Foundation Capital and was recently accepted into Y Combinator, bringing the startup to the U.S. Moons provides a free consultation and 3D scan to patients in Mexico to determine if they are a good fit for the program, then supplies them with a year-long invisible braces regime for around $1,200. With 18 locations in Mexico and two in Colombia, Moons is expanding rapidly across the region, with ambitions for providing low-cost healthcare across several verticals in Latin America. 

Chinese ride-hailing startup Didi Chuxing recently launched a sustainable fleet of over 700 electric and hybrid cars for its Mexico City operations. After two years operating in Mexico, Didi announced that it would establish its headquarters in the capital city to manage its new low-emissions fleet. The company will provide financing to help its drivers acquire and use the vehicles, in an effort to reduce Didi’s environmental impact.

The IDB Lab released a report on female entrepreneurs in Latin America, finding that 54% of female founders have raised capital and 80% plan to scale internationally in the next five years. The study, entitled “wX Insights 2020: The Rise of Women STEMpreneurs,” finds that female entrepreneurship is on the rise in Latin America, particularly in the areas of fintech, edtech, healthtech and biotech. Nonetheless, 59% of the 1,148 women surveyed still see access to capital as the most significant limitation for their companies. However, as women take center stage in Latin American VC, such as Antonia Rojas Eing joining ALLVP as Partner, we may see funding tilt toward female-founded firms.

This month has set 2020 on a course to continue the strong growth we saw in the Latin American ecosystem in 2019. It is always exciting to see international investors make their first bets in the region, and we expect to continue seeing new VCs entering the region over the coming year.

India’s NoBroker raises $50M to help people buy and rent without real estate brokers

An Indian startup that is attempting to improve the way how millions of people in the nation lease or buy an apartment — by not paying any brokerage — just raised a significant amount of capital to further expand its business.

NoBroker said on Wednesday it has raised $50 million in a new financing round. The Series D round for the Bangalore-based real estate property operator was led by Tiger Global Management and included participation from existing investor General Atlantic. The five-year-old startup, which closed its previous financing round in June, has raised $121 million to date. The new round valued NoBroker at about $325 million, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

NoBroker operates in six cities in India: Bengaluru, Chennai, Gurgaon, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Pune. The startup has established itself as one of the largest players in the local real estate business. It operates over 3 million properties on its website and serves about 7 million users. It is adding more than 280,000 new users each month, Amit Kumar, cofounder and CEO of NoBroker, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Real estate brokers in India, as is true in other markets, help people find properties. But they can charge up to 10 months worth of rent (leasing) — or a single-digit percent of the apartment’s worth if someone is buying the property — in urban cities as their commission. NoBroker allows the owner of a property to directly connect with potential tenants to remove brokerage charges from the equation.

The startup makes money in three ways. First, it lets non-paying users get in touch with only nine property owners. Those who wish to contact more property owners are required to pay a fee. Second, property owners can opt to pay NoBroker to have its representatives deal with prospective buyers — in a move that ironically makes the startup serve as a broker.

NoBroker also offers end-to-end services such as rent agreements, home loans, and movers and packers, for which it also charges a fee. The startup says it uses machine learning to speed up the transactions and make it service low-cost.

The startup processes about $14 million in rent each month, Kumar said. This is increasing by 25%-30% each month, he said. NoBroker’s business in Bangalore and Mumbai, two of its largest cities, are already profitable, Kumar said.

The startup will use the fresh capital to expand its business and build more products. It recently launched a community and digital management app to keep a digital log of all the entries — say a Flipkart delivery personnel comes to your house — occurring in a society, and maintain a dialogue with other people in a vicinity. The app also allows users to exchange goods with one another and pay their utility bills, startup’s executives said.

The new financing round is oddly smaller than $51 million NoBroker had raised in June this year. Saurabh Garg, chief business officer of NoBroker, told TechCrunch in an interview that the founding team did not want to dilute their stake in the startup, hence they opted for a smaller round.

NoBroker is competing with a number of players including Proptiger, 99Acres, and heavily backed NestAway, which counts Goldman Sachs and Tiger Global among its investors. NestAway operates in eight Indian cities and has raised north of $100 million to date. Budget hotel startup Oyo, which has already become one of the largest hotel businesses in the world, also operates in NoBroker’s territory with Oyo Living.

But NoBroker’s Kumar said he does not see Oyo and other startups as competition. Instead, “these other players are some of our largest clients,” he said. India’s real estate industry is estimated to grow to $1 trillion in worth by 2030.

The business model of NoBroker has also created new local challenges for the startup. Brokers are unsurprisingly not happy with startups such as NoBroker and have grown hostile in recent years. In recent years, they have attacked and harassed NoBroker employees. So much so that the startup had to delist its address from Google Maps. But Kumar said the mindset of people is changing.

The Khashoggi murder isn’t stopping SoftBank’s Vision Fund

Money talks in the startup community, especially when SoftBank comes knocking with the megabucks of its Vision Fund.

Despite the public outcry around the firm’s dependence on money from Saudi Arabia in the wake of that country’s assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, deal flow for Softbank’s Vision Fund appears to be back to normal.

The $100 billion megafund has done 21 deals over the last two quarters, that’s as more than in the other quarters of the previous year combined, according to data from Crunchbase, thanks to an uptick from Asia. Since the October 2 murder, there have been 11 investments in U.S. companies, seven in Asia, two in Europe and one in Latin America. Just this week, the fund completed a near $1.5 billion investment in Southeast Asia-based ride-hailing company Grab.

While U.S. and European firms have more options, and therefore, perhaps deserve more scrutiny, Softbank’s cash is increasingly the only game in town for startups in Asia, where there are fewer alternatives for later stage capital outside of large Chinese private equity firms or tech giants — which come with their own risks.

The Vision Fund is seen by some critics as tainted money for its links to the Saudi Royal family. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) is the fund’s anchor investor and it is controlled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been strongly linked with the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the regime.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was murdered on October 2 after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. His visit was part of an effort to obtain divorce documents in order to marry his fiancée, but it ended with his apparently gruesome death. Audio clips suggest he was beheaded, dismembered, and had his fingers severed before his body was dissolved in acid, although new reports suggest it may have been burned.

Jamal Khashoggi — pictured in 2014 — was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year [Photographer: Ohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images]

The Vision Fund is designed to finance ‘global winners’ which, like all investment funds, is set up to provide ‘unfair advantages’ to help its companies grow into hugely important businesses. On the financial end, as is the norm, it is built to provide handsome returns to the LPs, thus directly boosting the coffers of the PIF, the Saudi kingdom, and by extension the Saudi prince himself.

An investigation is going, but there’s already plenty of evidence to suggest that the murder happened at the request of the prince.

Sources within the U.S. State Department have reportedly said it is “blindingly obvious” that the Crown Prince ordered the killing — he reportedly threatened to shoot Khashoggi one year before. But, now that the apparent period of outrage is over, SoftBank has reverted back to writing checks and companies are taking them in spite of the links to Saudi Arabia.

For startups, the money flow means that a major source of capital for growth or subsidies for customers comes from the Saudi royal family’s pockets — a regime that would reportedly not hesitate to murder a critical voice.

SoftBank’s Vision Fund has ramped up its deals over the past six months, according to data from Crunchbase

What are the companies saying?

SoftBank itself said it has a commitment to “the people” of Saudi Arabia that will see it deploy its capital unchanged, although Chairman Masayoshi Son did concede that he will wait on the findings of the investigation into the murder before deciding on whether PIF will be involved in a second Vision Fund.

The founders taking the capital have been more cautious. When questioned, executives talk about the specifics of their deal and their growth plans, most defer issues on the management of LPs, like PIF, to SoftBank. While offering words in support of the ongoing murder investigation, they manage to say little about the ethics of taking money from the Saudi regime.

Bom Kim, CEO of Korean e-commerce company Coupang — which raised $2 billion from the Vision Fund — told TechCrunch in November that the allegations around the murder “don’t represent us and don’t represent [Vision Fund] companies.”

“We are deeply concerned by the reported events and alongside SoftBank are monitoring the situation closely until the full facts are known,” Tokopedia CEO William Tanuwijaya told TechCrunch in December after the Vision Fund co-led a $1.1 billion round.

William Tanuwijaya is the co-founder and CEO of Tokopedia [Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg]

OYO, the budget hotel network based out of India, did not respond to a request comment sent the day before this story was published. The startup raised $1 billion led by the Vision Fund in September.

TechCrunch was also unable to get a response to questions sent to Chehaoduo, the Vision Fund’s first China-based startup which raised $1.5 billion in February. The company is notable for being the only one of this group that didn’t count SoftBank as an existing investor prior to its Vision Fund deal.

The latest addition to the collection is Grab, the ride-hailing company in Southeast Asia that’s led by CEO Anthony Tan, who is very publicly a devout Christian. In a statement sent to TechCrunch this week, Grab defended its relationship with SoftBank, which first invested in Grab back in 2014:

What happened to Jamal Khashoggi was obviously horrible. We hope whoever is responsible is held accountable. We are not in a position to comment on behalf of SoftBank but from our perspective Son-san and the entire SoftBank team have brought so much value to the table for Grab – beyond just financing. They have brought advice, mentorship and potential business opportunities. The Vision Fund is about investing for the next 100 or 200 years and investing in trends that will move the needle for humanity in positive ways. This is a lofty and ultimately positive goal.

Anthony Tan is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Grab [Photographer: Ore Huiying/Bloomberg/Getty Images]

The Vision Fund is just getting started in Asia, however, with rumors suggesting it is planning to open offices in China and India. Singapore is presumably on that list, too, while the fund has been busy hiring a general team that will operate globally out of the U.S.

To date, the fund’s focus in Asia has been on some of the region’s largest (highest-valued) companies, but as it develops a local presence it is likely to seek out less obvious deals to grow its portfolio. That’s going to mean this question of ethics and conscience around the Vision Fund’s capital will present itself to more founders in Asia. Going on what we’ve seen so far, most will have no problem taking the money and issuing platitudinous statements.

Privately, VCs in the region who I have canvassed have told me that founders have little choice but to take the Vision Fund’s money. They explain that nobody else can offer billion-dollar-sized checks, while SoftBank is an existing investor in many of them already which gives it additional leverage. The fund also takes the aggressive approach of threatening to back rival companies if it doesn’t get the deals it wants, as we saw when Son said he’d consider a deal with Lyft when its Uber investment was uncertain.

That reality may be true — finding an alternative to a hypothetical $1 billion Vision Fund check is a daunting challenge — but we’ve reached a very sad time and place when the sheer size of an investment overrides important concerns about where that money came from.