Venture Capital

Investors say emerging multiverses are the future of entertainment

Posted by | augmented reality, Entertainment, epic games, Extra Crunch, Gaming, Market Analysis, Marshmello, multiverse, new horizons, Roblox, scooter braun, Social, social media platforms, Startups, TC, Travis Scott, Venture Capital, vidcon, Virtual reality | No Comments

The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating the adoption of new technologies and cultural shifts that were already well underway. According to a clutch of heavy-hitting investors, this dynamic is particularly strong in gaming and extended reality.

Unlike other segments of the startup and tech world, where valuations have been slashed, early-stage companies focused on building new games, gaming infrastructure and virtual or extended reality entertainment are having no trouble raising money. They’ve even seen valuations rise, investors said.

“Valuations have increased pretty significantly in the gaming sector. Valuations have gone up 20 to 25% higher than I would have seen prior to this pandemic,” Phil Sanderson, a co-founder and managing director at Griffin Gaming Partners, told fellow participants on a virtual panel during the Los Angeles Games Conference earlier this month.

Driving the appetite for new investments is the entertainment industry’s bearhug of virtual events, animated features, games and social media platforms after widespread shelter-in-place orders made physical events an impossibility.

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The Great Reset

Posted by | Column, coronavirus, COVID-19, Entertainment, Extra Crunch, food, Gaming, Health, Market Analysis, Media, science, Social, Startups, Transportation, Venture Capital | No Comments
Ann Miura-Ko
Contributor

Ann Miura-Ko is a co-founding partner at Floodgate, a seed-stage VC firm. A repeat member of the Forbes Midas List and the New York Times Top 20 Venture Capitalists Worldwide, she earned a PhD in math modeling of cybersecurity at Stanford University.

Talk of an economic downturn can be frightening, especially one precipitated by a pervasive health crisis. At times, I’m overwhelmed by the images of countless patients on life-support and the near-endless streams of statistics regurgitating bad news.

Having started in venture at the beginning of two recessions, I’ve seen how the startup industry functions during economic trouble. My second day of work at Charles River Ventures was September 11th, 2001. My first project, analyzing the VC industry, propelled the firm to return more than 60% of its fund to investors, going from a $1.2 billion fund to $450 million. In May 2008, Mike Maples and I founded Floodgate in the midst of the Great Recession. We learned that great founders won’t wait for a better economic moment to start a company.

While we are currently embroiled in personal and professional circumstances unimaginable even three months ago, these very challenges will form the basis of incredibly innovative ideas. In order for the world to move forward, we need our greatest minds to imagine a brighter future and create solutions to make it a reality.

When I analyze our society and novel health situation, one thing is certain: COVID-19 is a paradigm-shifting event, creating massively accelerated social and economic change.

The Great Reset is not just another economic event

Our current situation is unique. It’s not merely a cyclical economic event, nor is it a standalone health crisis. What we are experiencing is not just an inflection point: it’s a societal phase-change unlike anything we have ever seen. We face an epic choice of how we move forward, and the decisions we make today will shape an entire generation.

Here’s why: COVID-19 is prompting us to reset many of our most fundamental behaviors. These changes are impacting our financial system, with effects visible throughout our homes, businesses and even the concept of “workplace” itself.

COVID-19 is pervasive

As a global pandemic, the virus itself has spread to nearly every country in the world.

Between February 20 and March 26, 100% of the world’s 20 largest economies implemented government-mandated social distancing. Globally, the number of scheduled airline flights is down 64%. In some countries, like Spain and Germany, flight numbers are down by more than 90%.

Since the timeline for lifting government restrictions is unclear — and even then, scientists are uncertain how the virus will spread — the question lingers: How long will this go on?

COVID-19’s impact is uncertain, long-term and potentially undulating, affecting every facet of our lives. You can’t simply wait it out with the expectation that industries will rebound. In 2001, September 11 felt pervasive, but its economic impact ultimately stemmed from just one single incident and the resulting fear… and that one single incident still cost more than three trillion dollars. How much larger will COVID-19 be?

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This Week in Apps: Houseparty battles Messenger, Telegram drops crypto plans, Instagram Lite is gone

Posted by | Apps, coronavirus, COVID-19, Extra Crunch, Gaming, hardware, Market Analysis, Mobile, Startups, Venture Capital | No Comments

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending 3 hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week we’re continuing to look at how the coronavirus outbreak is impacting the world of mobile applications, including the latest news about COVID-19 apps, Facebook and Houseparty’s battle to dominate the online hangout, the game that everyone’s playing during quarantine, and more. We also look at the new allegations against TikTok, the demise of a popular “Lite” app, new apps offering parental controls, Telegram killing its crypto plans and many other stories, including a hefty load of funding and M&A.

Headlines

Contact tracing and COVID-19 apps in the news 

  • Global: WHO readies its coronavirus app for symptom-checking and possibly contact tracing. A WHO official told Reuters on Friday the new app will ask people about their symptoms and offer guidance on whether they may have COVID-19. Information on testing will be personalized to the user’s country. The organization is considering adding a Bluetooth-based, contact-tracing feature, too. A version of the app will launch globally, but individual countries will be able to use the underlying technology and add features to release their own versions. Engineers from Google and Microsoft have volunteered their time over the past few weeks to develop the app, which is available open-source on GitHub.
  • U.S.: Apple’s COVID-19 app, developed in partnership with the CDC, FEMA and the White House, received its first major update since its March debut. The new version includes recommendations for healthcare workers to align with CDC guidelines, best practices for quarantining if you’ve been exposed to COVID-19 and new information for pregnancy and newborns.
  • India: New Delhi’s contact-tracing app, Aarogya Setu, has reached 100 million users out of India’s total 450 million smartphone owners in 41 days after its release, despite privacy concerns. The app helps users self-assess if they caught COVID-19 by answering a series of questions and will alert them if they came into contact with someone who’s infected. The app has come under fire for how it stores user location data and logs the details for those reporting symptoms. The app is required to use Indian railways, which has boosted adoption.
  • Iceland: Iceland has one of the most-downloaded contact-tracing apps, with 38% of its population using it. But despite this, the country said it has not been a “game-changer” in terms of tracking the virus and only worked well when coupled with manual contact tracing — meaning phone calls that asked who someone had been in contact with. In addition, the low download rate indicates it may be difficult to get people to use these apps when they launch in larger markets.

Consumer advocacy groups say TikTok is still violating COPPA

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CRV’s Saar Gur wants to invest in a new wave of games built for VR, Twitch and Zoom

Posted by | augmented reality, consumer internet, coronavirus, COVID-19, CRV, Dropbox, Entertainment, Extra Crunch, Gaming, hardware, Kapwing, Market Analysis, niantic, Oculus Quest, Saar Gur, Social, Startups, TC, Twitch, twitch tv, unity, Venture Capital, Virtual reality, Xbox One | No Comments

Saar Gur is adept at identifying the next big consumer trends earlier than most: The San Francisco-based general partner at CRV has led investments into leading consumer internet companies like Niantic, DoorDash, Bird, Dropbox, Patreon, Kapwing and ClassPass.

His own experience stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic spurred his interest in three new investment themes focused on the next generation of games: those built for VR, those built on top of Twitch and those built for video chat environments as a socializing tool.

TechCrunch: We’ve been in a “VR winter,” as it’s been called in the industry, following the 2014-2017 wave of VC funding into VR drying up as the market failed to gain massive consumer adoption. You think VR could soon be hot again. Why?

Saar Gur: If you track revenues of third-party games on Oculus, the numbers are getting interesting. And we think the Quest is not quite the Xbox moment for Facebook, but the device and market response to the Quest have been great. So we are more engaged in looking at VR gaming startups than ever before.

What do you mean by “the Xbox moment,” and what will that look like for VR? Facebook hasn’t been able to keep up with demand for Oculus Quest headsets, and most VR headsets seem to have sold out during this pandemic as people seek entertainment at home. This seems like progress. When will we cross the threshold?

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VCs see opportunities for gaming infrastructure startups and incumbents

Posted by | Activision Blizzard, Amit Kumar, blockchain, discord, Extra Crunch, flashpoint, Gaming, Gigi Levy-Weiss, Investor Surveys, mobile game, online multiplayer games, overwatch league, Riot Games, Roblox, Startups, TC, Twitch, unity, Venture Capital | No Comments

As the infrastructure for developing games becomes more advanced, studios have turned to buying best-in-class technology from others instead of building everything from scratch (often with inferior quality).

This shift underpinned Unity’s rise as the most popular game engine. The current focus on games as ever-evolving social hubs that can remain popular for a decade requires investment in “live ops” to keep updating the game with new features and experiences, only adding to a game studio’s responsibilities.

There are big movements in gaming right now to make games cross-platform (not just restricted to mobile or PC or one console), incorporate new types of chat (in-game or outside of it) and to automatically remove bullies and bots among other things. Optimizing games’ virtual economies is only getting more complex as trade of virtual goods becomes increasingly popular.

All this means more opportunity for startups (and large incumbents) that provide new tools and platforms to game developers and gamers. To gauge which opportunities are prime for entrepreneurs, I asked four leading early-stage investors who focus on the gaming sector to share their analysis:

  • Sam Englebardt, Galaxy Interactive
  • Gigi Levy Weiss, NFX
  • Amit Kumar, Accel
  • Anton Backman, Play Ventures

Sam Englebardt, Galaxy Interactive

Which areas within gaming infrastructure seem firmly dominated by large incumbents, versus open for new startups to rise up?

I’m always rooting for the startup, but some of the really big and expensive infrastructure challenges seem unlikely to be solved by a startup, especially where the incumbents have a lead in time, money and the personnel they’re throwing at the problem. I’m thinking here, for example, about something like cloud computing, storage solutions, etc.

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7 VCs talk about today’s esports opportunities

Posted by | Advertising Tech, artificial intelligence, coronavirus, COVID-19, Entertainment, esports, Extra Crunch, Gaming, Investor Surveys, machine learning, Startups, TC, Venture Capital | No Comments

Even before the COVID-19 shutdown, venture funding rounds and total deal volume of VC funding for esports were down noticeably from the year prior. The space received a lot of attention in 2017 and 2018 as leagues formed, teams raised money and surging popularity fostered a whole ecosystem of new companies. Last year featured some big fundraises, but esports wasn’t the hot new thing in the tech world anymore.

This unexpected, compulsory work-from-home era may drive renewed interest in the space, however, as a larger market of consumers discover esports and more potential entrepreneurs identify pain points in their experience.

To track where new startups could arise this year, I asked seven VCs who pay close attention to the esports market where they see opportunities at the moment:

Their responses are below.

This is the second investor survey I’ve conducted to better understand VCs’ views on gaming startups amid the pandemic; they complement my broader gaming survey from October 2019 and an eight-article series on virtual worlds I wrote last month. If you missed it, read the previous survey, which investigated the trend of “games as the new social networks”.

Peter Levin, Griffin Gaming Partners

Which specific areas within esports are most interesting to you right now as a VC looking for deals? Which areas are the least interesting territory for new deals?

Everything around competitive gaming is of interest to us. With Twitch streaming north of two BILLION hours of game play thus far during the pandemic, this continues to be an area of great interest to us. Fantasy, real-time wagering, match-making, backend infrastructure and other areas of ‘picks and shovels’-like plays remain front burner for us relative to competitive gaming.

What challenges does the esports ecosystem now need solutions to that didn’t exist (or weren’t a focus) 2 years ago?

As competitive gaming is still so very new with respect to the greater competitive landscape of content, teams and events, the Industry should be nimble enough to better respond to dramatic market shifts relative to its analog, linear brethren. A native digital industry, getting back “online’”will be orders of magnitude more straightforward than in so many other areas.

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Venture investment in esports looks light as Q1 races to a close

Posted by | Chair, CrunchBase, esports, Extra Crunch, funding, Fundings & Exits, Fundraising, Gaming, league of legends, Startups, TC, United States, Venture Capital, video gaming | No Comments

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Today we’re taking a look at the world of esports venture capital investment, largely through the lens of preliminary data that we’ll caveat given how reported VC data lags reality. That phenomenon is likely doubly true in the current moment, as COVID-19 absorbs all news cycles and some venture rounds’ announcements are delayed even more than usual.

All the same, the data we do have paints a picture of a change in esports venture investment, one sufficient in size to indicate that an esports VC slowdown could be afoot. As with all early looks, we’re extending ourselves to reach a conclusion. But… no risk, no reward.

We’ll start by looking at Q1 2020 esports venture totals to date, compare them to year-ago results, and then peek at Q4 2019’s results and its year-ago comparison to get a handle on what else has happened lately in the niche. The picture that the quarters draw will help us understand how esports investing is starting a year that isn’t going as anyone expected.

Venture results

Today we’re using Crunchbase data, looking at both global and U.S.-specific venture totals in both round and dollar volume. To get a picture of the competitive gaming world, we’re examining investments into companies that are tagged as “esports” related in the Crunchbase database. Given that this is a somewhat wide cut, the data below is more directional than precise and should be treated as such.

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Libra rival Celo launches 50-member Alliance For Prosperity

Posted by | Anchorage, Andreessen Horowitz, Apps, blockchain, Coinbase Ventures, cryptocurrency, Developer, eCommerce, funding, Libra, Libra Association, Mobile, payments, Polychain Capital, stablecoin, TC, Venture Capital | No Comments

Some Libra Association members like Andreessen Horowitz and Coinbase Ventures are double-dipping, backing a competing cryptocurrency developer platform. Launching today with over 50 partners, non-profit The Celo Foundation’s ‘Alliance For Prosperity’ offers a way for developers to build decentralized mobile apps that are based on Celo’s blockchain platform and USD stablecoin.

The open-source Celo platform is still in testing with plans to officially launch its mainnet in April. The non-profit founded in 2017 has raised $36.4 million, including its Series A where Andreessen Horowitz’s a16z Crypto bought $15 million worth of Celo Gold tokens.

The biggest differentiator of Celo’s network versus other blockchains is that payments in the Celo Dollar stablecoin can be sent to people’s phone numbers rather than complicated addresses. The goal is to make delivering utility via blockchain easier by building a flexible network of applications that doesn’t scare regulators like Libra has.
The Alliance For Prosperity includes Andreessen Horowitz (which funded Celo), Coinbase (Ventures), Bison Trails, Anchorage, and Mercy Corps — all of which are also Libra Association members. That could potentially create a conflict of interest regarding which cryptocurrency and developer platform they promote to their portfolio companies, integrate into their products, or focus on for delivering financial services to the needy.

Other high-profile Alliance partners include Carbon, GiveDirectly, Grameen Foundation, Maple, and Polychain. Partners have made a somewhat vague commitment to “backing development efforts of the project, building infrastructure, implementing desired use cases on the platform, integrating Celo assets in their projects, or collaborating on education campaigns in their communities to further advance the use of blockchain technology” according to Chuck Kimble, Celo’s cLabs head of business development and head of the Alliance. Anyone can apply to join the open network, and there’s no minimum financial investment like Libra’s $10 million prerequisite.

Celo isn’t trying to replace the dollar with its own synthetic currency, and its reserve is backed with other cryptocurrencies rather than fiat cash. That might make it more acceptable to regulators who were worried that Libra’s token and fiat currency bundle-backed reserve could impact the global financial system. The first of the decentralized apps on the platform, the Celo Wallet, is already available for iOS and Android.

Like many blockchain projects, there are some lofty intentions for social impact with Celo. Use cases include “powering mobile and online work, enabling faster and affordable remittances, reducing the operational complexities of delivering humanitarian aid, facilitating payments, and enabling microlending” says Kimble. The real driver of this potential is Celo’s promise of much lower transaction fees than traditional middlemen charge.

When asked what the biggest threats to Celo’s success are, he told me “Banking infrastructure improving faster than we expect” and “Mobile adoption or LTE data not expanding on their current trajectory.” He did not mention the developer fatigue, regulatory scrutiny, technical complexity, or slow adoption of blockchain utilities that have plagued other crypto for good projects.

Here’s the full list of members working towards these goals:

Abra, Alice, AlphaWallet, Anchorage, Appen, Ayannah, Andreessen Horowitz, B12, BC4NB (Blockchain for the Next Billion), BeamAndGo, Bidali, Bison Trails, Blockchain Academy Mexico, Blockchain.com, Blockchain for Humanity (b4h), Blockchain for Social Impact (BSIC), Blockdaemon, Carbon, cLabs, CloudWalk Inc, Cobru, Coinbase, Coinplug, Cryptio, Cryptobuyer, CryptoSavannah, eSolidar, Fintech4Good, Flexa, Gitcoin, GiveDirectly, Grameen Foundation, GSMA, KeshoLabs, Laboratoria, Ledn, Maple, Mercy Corps, Metadium, Moon, MoonPay, Pipol, Pngme, Polychain, Project Wren, SaldoMX, Semicolon Africa, The Giving Block, Utrust, Upright, Yellow Card, and 88i. [Update: Ledger joined this morning.]

“Many of these organizations have on-the-ground operations that will begin to get Celo into the hands of those who have been underserved by the current global financial system” Andreessen Horowitz general partner Katie Haun told me. “Our hope is that this partnership will start unlocking the potential of internet money”. To spur adoption, the Alliance will distribute ‘Prosperity Gifts’ in the form of financial grants to developers proposing Celo products that would benefit society. 

There are also some peculiar characteristics of Celo’s system. People exchange other cryptocurrencies for Celo Gold, then exchange that for Celo Dollars they can spend. The reserve is backed with other cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ethereum rather that fiat, and isn’t fully collateralized. That could make it vulnerable to a Celo bank run or crash in price of those currencies. Celo also lets arbitrageurs pocket the difference if Celo Gold and Celo Dollars get out of sync.

While it might not be a danger to the world financial system like Libra, it could be a danger to itself. At least on the anti-money laundering front, cLabs — the team that’s kicking off development of the Celo platform — has hired former Capital One head of enterprise risk management Jai Ramaswamy. Plus, the Celo founders come well pedigreed, including Marek Olszewski and Rene Reinsberg who spun out machine learning startup Locu from MIT and sold it to GoDaddy, as well as EigenTrust inventor and former MIT Media Lab professor Sep Kamvar.

So far, 130 teams have expressed interest in building on the Celo platform. For reference, Libra said 1,500 organizations had said they wanted to work on that project four months after its reveal. Celo Camp and Blockchain for Social Impact Incubator will also be fostering projects for the blockchain.

Celo could make banking cheaper and more accessible while power new fintech innovation. But for any of that to happen, it will need to get enough developers building truly useful products, make the blockchain and currency exchange simple enough for mainstream audiences in developing nations, and grow adoption to meaningful levels few cryptocurrency projects have yet achieved. The Alliance For Prosperity will have to throw their weight into this project, not just their names, if it’s going to succeed.

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Fintech’s next decade will look radically different

Posted by | Amazon, Andreessen Horowitz, Android, Angela Strange, bain capital ventures, Bank, BlackRock, equifax, Facebook, Finance, financial services, financial technology, GitHub, Google, instagram, Marqeta, Matt Harris, Open Banking, payments, PayPal, Shopify, stripe, TechCrunch, Uber, Venture Capital | No Comments

The birth and growth of financial technology developed mostly over the last ten years.

So as we look ahead, what does the next decade have in store? I believe we’re starting to see early signs: in the next ten years, fintech will become portable and ubiquitous as it moves to the background and centralizes into one place where our money is managed for us.

When I started working in fintech in 2012, I had trouble tracking competitive search terms because no one knew what our sector was called. The best-known companies in the space were Paypal and Mint.

fintech search volume

Google search volume for “fintech,” 2000 – present.

Fintech has since become a household name, a shift that came with with prodigious growth in investment: from $2 billion in 2010 to over $50 billion in venture capital in 2018 (and on-pace for $30 billion+ this year).

Predictions were made along the way with mixed results — banks will go out of business, banks will catch back up. Big tech will get into consumer finance. Narrow service providers will unbundle all of consumer finance. Banks and big fintechs will gobble up startups and consolidate the sector. Startups will each become their own banks. The fintech ‘bubble’ will burst.

Who will the winners be in the future of fintech?

Here’s what did happen: fintechs were (and still are) heavily verticalized, recreating the offline branches of financial services by bringing them online and introducing efficiencies. The next decade will look very different. Early signs are beginning to emerge from overlooked areas which suggest that financial services in the next decade will:

  1. Be portable and interoperable: Like mobile phones, customers will be able to easily transition between ‘carriers’.
  2. Become more ubiquitous and accessible: Basic financial products will become a commodity and bring unbanked participants ‘online’.
  3. Move to the background: The users of financial tools won’t have to develop 1:1 relationships with the providers of those tools.
  4. Centralize into a few places and steer on ‘autopilot’.

Prediction 1: The open data layer

Thesis: Data will be openly portable and will no longer be a competitive moat for fintechs.

Personal data has never had a moment in the spotlight quite like 2019. The Cambridge Analytica scandal and the data breach that compromised 145 million Equifax accounts sparked today’s public consciousness around the importance of data security. Last month, the House of Representatives’ Fintech Task Force met to evaluate financial data standards and the Senate introduced the Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act.

A tired cliché in tech today is that “data is the new oil.” Other things being equal, one would expect banks to exploit their data-rich advantage to build the best fintech. But while it’s necessary, data alone is not a sufficient competitive moat: great tech companies must interpret, understand and build customer-centric products that leverage their data.

Why will this change in the next decade? Because the walls around siloed customer data in financial services are coming down. This is opening the playing field for upstart fintech innovators to compete with billion-dollar banks, and it’s happening today.

Much of this is thanks to a relatively obscure piece of legislation in Europe, PSD2. Think of it as GDPR for payment data. The UK became the first to implement PSD2 policy under its Open Banking regime in 2018. The policy requires all large banks to make consumer data available to any fintech which the consumer permissions. So if I keep my savings with Bank A but want to leverage them to underwrite a mortgage with Fintech B, as a consumer I can now leverage my own data to access more products.

Consortia like FDATA are radically changing attitudes towards open banking and gaining global support. In the U.S., five federal financial regulators recently came together with a rare joint statement on the benefits of alternative data, for the most part only accessible through open banking technology.

The data layer, when it becomes open and ubiquitous, will erode the competitive advantage of data-rich financial institutions. This will democratize the bottom of the fintech stack and open the competition to whoever can build the best products on top of that openly accessible data… but building the best products is still no trivial feat, which is why Prediction 2 is so important:

Prediction 2: The open protocol layer

Thesis: Basic financial services will become simple open-source protocols, lowering the barrier for any company to offer financial products to its customers.

Picture any investment, wealth management, trading, merchant banking, or lending system. Just to get to market, these systems have to rigorously test their core functionality to avoid legal and regulatory risk. Then, they have to eliminate edge cases, build a compliance infrastructure, contract with third-party vendors to provide much of the underlying functionality (think: Fintech Toolkit) and make these systems all work together.

The end result is that every financial services provider builds similar systems, replicated over and over and siloed by company. Or even worse, they build on legacy core banking providers, with monolith systems in outdated languages (hello, COBOL). These services don’t interoperate, and each bank and fintech is forced to become its own expert at building financial protocols ancillary to its core service.

But three trends point to how that is changing today:

First, the infrastructure and service layer to build is being disaggregates, thanks to platforms like Stripe, Marqeta, Apex, and Plaid. These ‘finance as a service’ providers make it easy to build out basic financial functionality. Infrastructure is currently a hot investment category and will be as long as more companies get into financial services — and as long as infra market leaders can maintain price control and avoid commoditization.

Second, industry groups like FINOS are spearheading the push for open-source financial solutions. Consider a Github repository for all the basic functionality that underlies fintech tools. Developers could continuously improve the underlying code. Software could become standardized across the industry. Solutions offered by different service providers could become more inter-operable if they shared their underlying infrastructure.

And third, banks and investment managers, realizing the value in their own technology, are today starting to license that technology out. Examples are BlackRock’s Aladdin risk-management system or Goldman’s Alloy data modeling program. By giving away or selling these programs to clients, banks open up another revenue stream, make it easy for the financial services industry to work together (think of it as standardizing the language they all use), and open up a customer base that will provide helpful feedback, catch bugs, and request new useful product features.

As Andreessen Horowitz partner Angela Strange notes, “what that means is, there are several different infrastructure companies that will partner with banks and package up the licensing process and some regulatory work, and all the different payment-type networks that you need. So if you want to start a financial company, instead of spending two years and millions of dollars in forming tons of partnerships, you can get all of that as a service and get going.”

Fintech is developing in much the same way computers did: at first software and hardware came bundled, then hardware became below differentiated operating systems with ecosystem lock-in, then the internet broke open software with software-as-a-service. In that way, fintech in the next ten years will resemble the internet of the last twenty.

placeholder vc infographic

Infographic courtesy Placeholder VC

Prediction 3: Embedded fintech

Thesis: Fintech will become part of the basic functionality of non-finance products.

The concept of embedded fintech is that financial services, rather than being offered as a standalone product, will become part of the native user interface of other products, becoming embedded.

This prediction has gained supporters over the last few months, and it’s easy to see why. Bank partnerships and infrastructure software providers have inspired companies whose core competencies are not consumer finance to say “why not?” and dip their toes in fintech’s waters.

Apple debuted the Apple Card. Amazon offers its Amazon Pay and Amazon Cash products. Facebook unveiled its Libra project and, shortly afterward, launched Facebook Pay. As companies from Shopify to Target look to own their payment and purchase finance stacks, fintech will begin eating the world.

If these signals are indicative, financial services in the next decade will be a feature of the platforms with which consumers already have a direct relationship, rather than a product for which consumers need to develop a relationship with a new provider to gain access.

Matt Harris of Bain Capital Ventures summarizes in a recent set of essays (one, two) what it means for fintech to become embedded. His argument is that financial services will be the next layer of the ‘stack’ to build on top of internet, cloud, and mobile. We now have powerful tools that are constantly connected and immediately available to us through this stack, and embedded services like payments, transactions, and credit will allow us to unlock more value in them without managing our finances separately.

Fintech futurist Brett King puts it even more succinctly: technology companies and large consumer brands will become gatekeepers for financial products, which themselves will move to the background of the user experiences. Many of these companies have valuable data from providing sticky, high-affinity consumer products in other domains. That data can give them a proprietary advantage in cost-cutting or underwriting (eg: payment plans for new iPhones). The combination of first-order services (eg: making iPhones) with second-order embedded finance (eg: microloans) means that they can run either one as a loss-leader to subsidize the other, such as lowering the price of iPhones while increasing Apple’s take on transactions in the app store.

This is exciting for the consumers of fintech, who will no longer have to search for new ways to pay, invest, save, and spend. It will be a shift for any direct-to-consumer brands, who will be forced to compete on non-brand dimensions and could lose their customer relationships to aggregators.

Even so, legacy fintechs stand to gain from leveraging the audience of big tech companies to expand their reach and building off the contextual data of big tech platforms. Think of Uber rides hailed from within Google Maps: Uber made a calculated choice to list its supply on an aggregator in order to reach more customers right when they’re looking for directions.

Prediction 4: Bringing it all together

Thesis: Consumers will access financial services from one central hub.

In-line with the migration from front-end consumer brand to back-end financial plumbing, most financial services will centralize into hubs to be viewed all in one place.

For a consumer, the hub could be a smartphone. For a small business, within Quickbooks or Gmail or the cash register.

As companies like Facebook, Apple, and Amazon split their operating systems across platforms (think: Alexa + Amazon Prime + Amazon Credit Card), benefits will accrue to users who are fully committed to one ecosystem so that they can manage their finances through any platform — but these providers will make their platforms interoperable as well so that Alexa (e.g.) can still win over Android users.

As a fintech nerd, I love playing around with different financial products. But most people are not fintech nerds and prefer to interact with as few services as possible. Having to interface with multiple fintechs separately is ultimately value subtractive, not additive. And good products are designed around customer-centric intuition. In her piece, Google Maps for Money, Strange calls this ‘autonomous finance:’ your financial service products should know your own financial position better than you do so that they can make the best choices with your money and execute them in the background so you don’t have to.

And so now we see the rebundling of services. But are these the natural endpoints for fintech? As consumers become more accustomed to financial services as a natural feature of other products, they will probably interact more and more with services in the hubs from which they manage their lives. Tech companies have the natural advantage in designing the product UIs we love — do you enjoy spending more time on your bank’s website or your Instagram feed? Today, these hubs are smartphones and laptops. In the future, could they be others, like emails, cars, phones or search engines?

As the development of fintech mirrors the evolution of computers and the internet, becoming interoperable and embedded in everyday services, it will radically reshape where we manage our finances and how little we think about them anymore. One thing is certain: by the time I’m writing this article in 2029, fintech will look very little like it did today.

So which financial technology companies will be the ones to watch over the next decade? Building off these trends, we’ve picked five that will thrive in this changing environment.

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Lessons from M-Pesa for Africa’s new VC-rich fintech startups

Posted by | Airtel, Bob Collymore, China, Chipper Cash, kenya, M-Pesa, Mobile, Opera, paga, payments, Safaricom, South Africa, Tanzania, TC, Venture Capital, visa, vodafone | No Comments

In African fintech, the fourth quarter of 2019 brought big money to new entrants.

Chinese investors put $220 million into OPay and PalmPay — two fledgling startups with plans to scale in Nigeria and the broader continent. Several sources told me the big bucks had created anxiety for more than few payments ventures in Nigeria with similar strategies and smaller coffers. They may not need to fret just yet, however: lessons from Africa’s most successful mobile-money case study, M-Pesa, suggest that VC alone won’t buy scale in digital finance.

Startups and fintech in Africa

Over the last decade, Africa has been in the midst of a startup boom accompanied by big growth in VC and improvements in internet and mobile penetration.

Some definitive country centers for company formation, tech hubs and investment have emerged; Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya lead the continent in numbers for all those categories. Additional strong and emerging points for innovation and startups across Africa’s 54 countries and 1.2 billion people include Ghana, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Senegal.

The continent surpassed $1 billion in VC to startups in 2018 and per research done by Partech and WeeTracker, fintech is the focus of the bulk of capital and deal-flow.

By several estimates,  Africa is home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked and underbanked population.

This runs parallel to the region’s off-the-grid SME’s and economic activity — on display and in commercial motion through the street traders, roadside kiosks and open-air markets common from Nairobi to Lagos.

IMF estimates have pegged Africa’s informal economy as one of the largest in the world. Thousands of fintech startups have descended onto this large pool of unbanked and underbranked citizens and SMEs looking to grow digital finance products and market share.

In this race, the West African nation of Nigeria — home to Africa’s largest economy and population — is becoming an epicenter for VC. Many fintech-related companies are adopting a strategy of scaling there first before expanding outward.

Enter PalmPay and OPay

That includes new entrants OPay and PalmPay, which raised so much capital in fourth quarter 2019. It’s notable that both were founded in 2019 and largely incubated by Chinese actors.

PalmPay, a consumer-oriented payments product, went live in November with a $40 million seed-round (one of the largest in Africa in 2019) led by Africa’s biggest mobile-phones seller — China’s Transsion. The startup was upfront about its ambitions, stating its goals to become “Africa’s largest financial services platform,” in a company statement.

To that end, PalmPay conveniently entered a strategic partnership with its lead investor. The startup’s payment app will come pre-installed on Transsion’s mobile device brands, such as Tecno, in Africa — for an estimated reach of 20 million phones in 2020.

PalmPay also launched in Ghana in November and its U.K. and Africa-based CEO, Greg Reeve, confirmed plans to expand to additional African countries in 2020.

If PalmPay’s $40 million seed round got founders’ attention, OPay’s $120 million Series B created shock-waves, coming just months after the mobile-based fintech venture raised $50 million — making OPay’s $170 million capital haul equivalent to roughly a fifth of all VC raised in Africa in 2018.

Founded by Chinese owned consumer internet company Opera — and backed by 9 Chinese investors — OPay is the payment utility for a suite of Opera -developed internet based commercial products in Nigeria that include ride-hail apps ORide and OCar and food delivery service OFood.

With its latest Series A, OPay announced it would expand in Kenya, South Africa, and Ghana.

In Nigeria, OPay’s $170 million Series A and B announced in the span of months dwarfs just about anything raised by new and existing fintech players, with the exception of Interswitch.

The homegrown payments processing company — which pioneered much of Nigeria’s digital finance infrastructure — reached unicorn status in November when Visa took a reported $200 million minority stake in the venture.

A sampling of more common funding amounts for payments ventures in Nigeria includes established fintech company Paga’s $10 million Series B. Recent market entrant Chipper Cash’s May 2019 seed-round was $2.4 million.

There is a large disparity between fintech startups in Nigeria with capital raises in ones and tens of millions vs. OPay and PalmPay’s $40 and $120 million rounds. Conventional wisdom could be that the big-capital, big spending firms have an unmistakable advantage in scaling digital payments in Nigeria and other markets.

A look at Kenya’s M-Pesa may prove otherwise.

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