Mexican unicorn Kavak raises a $485M Series D at a $4B valuation.

Kavak, the Mexican startup that’s disrupted the used car market in Mexico and Argentina, today announced its Series D of $485 million, which now values the company at $4 billion. This round more than triples their previous valuation of $1.15 billion, which established them as a unicorn just a couple of months ago in October of 2020. Kavak is now one of the top five highest-valued startups in Latin America.

The round was led by D1 Capital Partners, Founders Fund, Ribbit, and BOND, and brings Kavak’s total capital raised to date to more than $900 million. Kavak recently soft-launched in Brazil, and this new round of funding will be used to build out the Brazilian market and beyond, said Carlos García Ottati, Kavak’s CEO and Co-Founder. The company plans to do a full launch in Brazil in the next 60 days, García said, and we can expect to see Kavak in markets outside Latin America in the next 24 months, he added.

“We were built to solve emerging market problems,” García said.

Kavak, which was founded in 2016, is an online marketplace that aims to bring transparency, security, and access to financing to the used car market. The company also offers its own financing through its fintech arm, Kavak Capital, and counts more than 2,500 employees and 20 logistics and reconditioning hubs in Mexico and Argentina.

“In Latin America, 90% of the [used car] transactions are informal, which leads to a 40% fraud rate,” said García, who experienced these challenges first-hand when he moved to Mexico from Colombia a couple of years ago and bought a used car. 

“My budget allowed me to buy a used car, but there was no infrastructure around it. It took me 6 months to buy the car, and then the car had legal and mechanical issues and I lost most of my money,” he said. Kavak buys cars from individuals, refurbishes them, and offers warranties to buyers.

“Instead of buying a new car, they can buy a better car that still has all the warranties. It’s a really aspirational process,” said García. The company, which really amounts to four companies in one given its areas of focus, was built to be comprehensive by design in order to meet the various gaps in the market, García said.

“When you’re building a business here [Latin America], you need to build several businesses because so many things are broken,” he said. That’s why the financing option, for example, has been a key to their success, according to García.

Financing has traditionally been hard to come by in Brazil, and as García said, the used car market lacks infrastructure there, too. That being said, Brazil is Latin America’s fintech hub, and the space has been made leaps and bounds over the last 7-10 years with companies such as Nubank, PagSeguro, Creditas, PicPay, and others leading the way. As a result, credit cards and loans are more widely available today in the region, offering competition for Kavak Capital. While Kavak has localized some of its product for the Brazilian market — namely building out a Portuguese language version of the app and website — García said the markets are very similar.

“In Brazil, you still have the same problems that you have in Mexico, but Brazil is a little more developed, especially in fintech, which is light years ahead of Mexico,” he said.

With the Brazilian product heading to the races, García said they already have plans for other regions, though he declined to name them.

“80% of people in emerging markets don’t have access to a car,” García said of the global market size. “We want to go into big markets where customers are facing similar problems and where Kavak can really change their lives,” he added.

#apps, #argentina, #articles, #automotive, #brazil, #colombia, #creditas, #d1-capital-partners, #ecommerce, #finance, #financial-technology, #financing, #founders-fund, #funding, #latin-america, #logistics, #mexico, #nubank, #online-lending, #online-marketplace, #pagseguro, #recent-funding, #series-d, #startups, #transportation, #unicorn, #used-cars

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Valoreo closes on $50M to roll up LatAm e-commerce brands

A new breed of startups is acquiring and growing small but promising third-party merchants, and building out their own economies of scale.

And while there are a number of such startups based in the U.S. and Europe, none had emerged in the Latin American market. Until now.

Valoreo, a Mexico City-based acquirer of e-commerce businesses, announced Tuesday that it has raised $50 million of equity and debt financing in a seed funding round.

The dollar amount is large for a seed round by any standards, but most certainly ranks among the highest ever raised by a Latin American startup — further evidence of increased investor interest in the region’s burgeoning venture scene

Upper90, FJ Labs, Angel Ventures, Presight Capital and a slew of angel investors participated in the round. Those angels included David Geisen, head of Mercado Libre Mexico; BEA Systems’ co-founder Alfred Chuang; and Tushar Ahluwalia, founder of Razor Group, a European marketplace aggregator, among others.

Founded in late 2020, Valoreo aims to invest in, operate and scale e-commerce brands as part of its self-described mission “to bring better products at more affordable prices” to the Latin American consumer.

“We were substantially oversubscribed and were therefore able to select investors that not only provide capital, but also additional know-how in key areas,” said co-founder Alex Gruell.

Valoreo joins the growing number of startups focused on rolling up e-commerce brands.

The company’s model is similar to that of Thrasio — which just raised another $750 million–  and Perch in the U.S. But Valoreo says its approach has been tailored to “the specific needs of the Latin American market and is specifically focused on the Latin American end customer.”

Another new company in the space called Branded recently launched its own roll-up business on $150 million in funding. Others in the space include Berlin Brands Group, SellerX, Heyday and Heroes.

But as my colleague Ingrid Lunden points out, “the feverish pace of fundraising in the area of FBA roll-ups feels very much like a bubble in the market — not least because none of these still-young companies have yet to prove that the strategy to buy up and consolidate these sellers is a useful and profitable one.”

How it works

Valoreo (which the company says is an extension of the Spanish word “valor,” meaning to add value), acquires merchants that operate their own brands and primarily sell on online marketplaces such as Mercado Libre, Amazon and Linio. The company targets brands that offer “category-leading products” and which it believes have “significant growth potential.” It also develops brands in-house to offer a broader selection of products to the end customer.

Like Thrasio, Valoreo says it’s able to help entrepreneurs who may lack the resources and access to capital to take their businesses to the next level.

Co-founder and co-CEO Stefan Florea says the company takes less than five weeks typically from its initial contact with a seller to a final payout. 

Then, the acquired and developed brands are integrated into the company’s consolidated holding. By tapping its team of “specialists” in areas such as digital marketing and supply chain management, it claims to be able to help these brands “reach new heights” while giving the entrepreneurs behind the companies “an attractive exit,” or partial exit in some cases.

We have different structures, always taking into account the personal objectives of the seller,” Stefan Florea added.

Generally Valoreo acquires the majority of the business, with the purchase price typically being a combination of an upfront cash payment and a profit share component so sellers can still earn money.

Looking ahead, Valoreo plans to use its new capital mostly to acquire and develop “interesting” brands, as well as build out its current team of 10 while expanding its infrastructure and operations.

The company is currently focused on the Mexican and Brazilian markets, but is planning its expansion into other Latin American countries where it has strong local support systems, such as Colombia, according to co-founder Martin Florea.

Our mission is to be a pan-Latin American player providing value to the entire region,” Martin Florea said. “Latin America in general and Mexico in particular are in a distinct situation which provides phenomenal opportunities for e-commerce merchants on the one hand but also presents particular challenges on the other hand.”

Those challenges, according to Martin Florea, include limited access to growth capital, a lack of specialized expertise in certain areas (such as supply chain management), limited opportunities to sell their business and pursue new ventures, as well as operational burdens and the lack of capacities to expand into new countries and marketplaces.

Valoreo emphasizes it is not out to compete with Mercado Libre, Amazon and other regional marketplaces but instead wants to partner with them.

“Without these platforms, this opportunity would not exist,” Martin Florea said.

Hernán Fernández, founder and managing partner of Angel Ventures, believes Valoreo “will add a lot of value” to the Latin American e-commerce landscape, which is experiencing both market growth and the fragmentation of the seller space.

Jüsto co-founder and CEO (and Valoreo investor) Ricardo Weder notes that the e-commerce market is at an inflection point in Latin America. According to eMarketer, the region was the fastest-growing e-commerce market in the world in 2020, with 37% year over year growth. However, it is a much more fragmented and crowded market compared to other regions, such as the United States.

This, Valoreo believes, provides an opportunity for consolidation.

“There are still many consumers that are not aware of the great variety of outstanding local brands that sell innovative products on marketplaces online,” Stefan Florea said. “In the U.S. or Europe e-commerce is the new way of shopping, offering an even greater range of products and brands than offline shopping. We firmly believe it will not take long until end-customers in Mexico and across Latin America discover all the benefits that e-commerce offers.”

#amazon, #angel-ventures, #e-commerce, #ecommerce, #funding, #latin-america, #mercadolibre, #mexico, #mexico-city, #online-marketplace, #online-marketplaces, #recent-funding, #ricardo-weder, #startups, #thrasio, #valoreo

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OptioLend launches new marketplace to become ‘the LendingTree of commercial real estate’

The commercial real estate industry is facing its share of challenges, considering the fact that so many people are working from home (and not in offices) and retail is riding a slippery slope as more people shop online.

But from downturns, opportunity emerges.

Enter OptioLend, a new startup that wants to help individual investors take advantage of opportunities in commercial real estate by connecting them with “the best possible” lenders. The Columbus, Ohio-based company launched its marketplace Tuesday after months of operating in private beta.

The new platform uses an AI-powered algorithm and a database of more than 9,500 capital sources to help prospective real estate borrowers in search of debt financing find lenders “with the best terms.” In other words, the company’s self-proclaimed mission is to become the “LendingTree for commercial real estate.” (For the unacquainted, Charlotte, North Carolina-based LendingTree is an online marketplace that provides consumers multiple offers from several lenders for things like mortgage, student and personal loans.)

In fact, Joel Lowery, a former LendingTree executive who built the back end of that company’s platform, helped build out the OptioLend portal serving in a technical advisor capacity along with former data scientists at IBM.

Once an investor applies for a loan, OptioLend identifies up to 20 lenders best suited for that application based on recent lending history and other criteria. Borrowers and brokers can negotiate and close deals from within the company’s platform via the mostly automated process, the company claims. But it’s also launching “with a concierge service of experienced capital advisors” to help guide users who need help during the loan procurement process.

To get off the ground, OptioLend last year raised about $1 million in seed funding led by the Schottenstein Family Office with participation from Loud Capital and MLG Ventures. For context, the Schottenstein family is one of the largest private real estate owners in the country.

CEO Richard Geisenfeld said there’s a plethora of lenders that can lend at that price point, whereas there is “a relatively small pool of capital sources” that focus on deals above $10 million.

“Capital markets are experiencing a 50% surge in refis and new loans as the markets start to rebound from COVID,” he said. “And as existing loans start coming due, we think we’re in a perfect timing to roll out. Properties are going to be repurposed, and are already starting to be.”

And while OptioLend can work with institutions and individual investors, it’s more focused on the latter.

Institutions have a lot of choices,” Geisenfeld said. “Individual investors do not.

Geisenfeld said he comes from a family of developers and himself has closed about $1.7 billion worth of transactions in 44 states as founder of Capital Commercial Partners. He’d been representing the Schottenstein family for nearly 20 years before the concept behind OptioLend emerged.

As an experiment prior to the formation of OptioLend, the family office had reached out to more than 50 lenders in an effort to finance the purchase of a small single tenant, triple net portfolio. They were surprised to discover that the interest rates varied as much as a full percentage point.

“Every time we did a deal with them, we’d hear anecdotally there were better [loan] rates out there and they agreed that we needed to create some kind of efficiency and automation,” Geisenfeld told TechCrunch. “So I went to one of my colleagues and asked ‘how do we change the paradigm from the traditional methodology?’ And that’s the problem we’re out to solve — by increasing an investor’s access to capital by 10 times in 10 minutes.”

The startup says it not only helps investors with new loan applications, but it can also help them refinance existing assets. Its sweet spot is on transactions in the middle market — in the $1 million to $10 million range.

OptioLend will work with commercial real estate and mortgage brokers alike either by allowing them to use the platform directly or to refer property owners to it. Their incentive for referrals is earning up to 50% of the original fees.

David Schottenstein, principal of Schottenstein Family Office, noted in a written statement that in today’s market, borrowers with limited access to capital sources sometimes sign onto loan terms with interest rates “as much as 100 basis points higher than they have to.” 

“OptioLend’s ability to get deals in front of multiple lenders quickly helps ensure that borrowers are getting the best terms possible,” he added.

#economy, #finance, #financial-technology, #lendingtree, #loans, #ohio, #online-lending, #online-marketplace, #optiolend, #real-estate, #schottenstein-family-office, #startups

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MadeiraMadeira, Brazil’s answer to Wayfair and Ikea, is now worth over $1 billion

MadeiraMadeira, the Brazilian answer to Wayfair or Ikea, is now worth $1 billion after raising $190 million in late stage financing from investors led by SoftBank’s Latin American investment fund and the Brazilian public and private investment firm, Dynamo.

An online marketplace specializing in home products, MadeiraMadeira offers roughly 300,000 products so customers can build furnish, renovate and decorate their homes.

Founded in 2009 by Daniel Scandian, Marcelo Scandian and Robson Privado, the company has seen huge tailwinds come from the shift to online shopping in Brazil as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

With stores closed, online shopping in Brazil surged. As Daniel Scandian noted, before the pandemic ecommerce penetration in Brazil was at roughly 7%, that number ballooned to 17% at the height of the pandemic in Brazil and has now stabilized at around 10%.

Combining third party sales with private labeled goods and its own shipping and logistics facilities has meant that MadeiraMadeira can take the best practices from several online retailers and home furnishing stores, Scandian said.

There are more than 10,000 sellers on the MadeiraMadeira platform and roughly 2.5 million stock keeping units. In recent years the company has added showrooms to its mix of retail facilities, where customers can check out merchandise, but complete their orders online.

“That’s the way we can tackle the offline market with a digital mindset,” Scandian said. 

Money from the most recent financing will be used to invest in expanding its logistics capabilities with the addition of new warehouse facilities to expand on its existing ten locations. The company also intends to add same day delivery and the expansion of its private label services.

The new capital, likely the last round before a potential public offering, included previous investors like Flybridge and Monashees along with public-focused investment firms Velt, Brasil Capital and Lakewood.

Early investors like Monashees, Kaszek, Fundo Avila, Endeavour Catalyst and angel backers like Niraj Shah, the founder of Wayfair, and Build.com founder Christian Friedland were instrumental to MadeiraMadeira’s early success, Scandian said.

Based in Curitiba, MadeiraMadeira has over 1300 employees, with the majority of them focused on technology, logistics and product development.

“With this new investment, we are raising our commitment to MadeiraMadeira’s long-term value creation vision as the company consolidates its position as the leader in Latin America’s home goods market. Since our initial investment, MadeiraMadeira’s management team has delivered everything they’ve promised, and our faith in them continues to grow,” said Paulo Passoni, Managing Investment Partner to SoftBank Latin America fund.

#brazil, #companies, #dynamo, #e-commerce, #flybridge, #founder, #ikea, #latin-america, #leader, #online-marketplace, #online-shopping, #partner, #retailers, #softbank, #softbank-group, #tc, #wayfair

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TaskRabbit is resetting customer passwords after finding ‘suspicious activity’ on its network

TaskRabbit has reset an unknown number of customer passwords after confirming it detected “suspicious activity” on its network.

The IKEA -owned online marketplace for on-demand labor said it reset user passwords out of an abundance of caution and that it “took steps to prevent access to any user accounts,” a TaskRabbit spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The company later confirmed it was a credential stuffing attack, where existing sets of exposed or breached usernames and passwords are matched against different websites to access accounts.

“We acted in an abundance of caution and reset passwords for many TaskRabbit accounts, including all users who had not logged in since May 1, 2020, as well as all users who logged in during the time period of the attack, even though most of the latter activity was attributable to users’ regular use of our services,” the spokesperson said.

“As always, the safety and security of the TaskRabbit community is our priority, and we will continue to be vigilant about protecting our users’ personal information,” said the spokesperson.

TaskRabbit customers were alerted to the incident in a vague email that only noted their password had been recently changed “as a security precaution,” without saying what specifically prompted the account change. TechCrunch confirmed that the email was legitimate.

The password reset email sent to TaskRabbit customers. (Image: Sarah Perez/TechCrunch)

It’s not uncommon for companies to reset passwords after a security incident where customer or account information is accessed or stolen in a breach.

Last year, online apparel marketplace StockX reset customer passwords after initially citing “system updates,” but later admitted it took action after it found suspicious activity on its network. Days later, a hacker provided TechCrunch with 6.8 million StockX account records stolen from the company’s servers.

TaskRabbit’s freelance labor marketplace was founded in 2008, and grew over time from an auction-style platform for negotiating tasks and errands to a more mature and tailored marketplace to match customers with contractors. That eventually attracted the attention of furniture retailer IKEA, which bought the startup in September 2017 after TaskRabbit put itself on the market for a strategic buyer.

The year after the acquisition, however, TaskRabbit had to take its website and app down due to a “cybersecurity incident.” The company later revealed an attacker had gained unauthorized access to its systems. Then-TaskRabbit CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot said the company had contracted with an outside forensics team to identify what customer information had been compromised by the attack, and urged both users and providers to stay vigilant in monitoring their own accounts for suspicious activity.

Following the attack, the company said it was implementing several new security measures and would work on making the log-in process more secure. It also said it would reduce the amount of data retained about taskers and customers as well as “enhance overall network cyber threat detection technology.”

Brown-Philpot left TaskRabbit earlier this year, and the CEO role has since been filled by former Airbnb and Uber Eats leader, Ania Smith.

Updated with additional comment from TaskRabbit.

#data-breach, #data-security, #ecommerce, #ikea, #online-marketplace, #retailers, #security, #taskrabbit

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B2B marketplaces will be the next billion-dollar e-commerce startups

Startups involved in B2B e-commerce such as Faire and Mirakl have burst out of the gates in 2020. Almost overnight, these startups transformed into consequential platforms, earning billion-dollar valuations along the way. The B2B e-commerce industry has broad reach, encompassing everything from commerce infrastructure and payments technology to procurement and supply-chain solutions. But one area of the B2B e-commerce sector holds outsized promise: marketplaces.

These venues for buyers and sellers of business-related products are exploding in popularity, fueled by better infrastructure, payments and security on the back-end and companies’ increased need to conduct business online during the pandemic.

Even before the pandemic, B2B marketplaces were expected to generate $3.6 trillion in sales by 2024, up from an estimated $680 billion in 2018, according to payments research firm iBe TSD. They were already growing more quickly than most B2C marketplaces that predated them, and when COVID shutdowns hit, many companies scrambled to shift all purchasing online. A survey of business buyers conducted by Digital Commerce 360 found that 20% of purchasing managers spent more on marketplaces, and 22% spent significantly more, during the pandemic.

For many entrepreneurs running B2B marketplaces, the pandemic created new demand for their platforms. Yet to convince businesses to make a permanent shift to online purchasing, B2B marketplaces cannot simply remain stagnant, serving as simple transactional platforms. Those that innovate now to introduce adjacent services will emerge as winners in the next few years, with some inevitably becoming billion-dollar companies.

As a venture capital investor in B2B e-commerce companies, I’m carefully watching the industry and have seen several forward-thinking business models emerge for B2B marketplaces. The predominant revenue model of B2C marketplaces, the gross merchandise value (GMV) take rate, or percentage of each transaction, doesn’t always translate well in the B2B world. Instead, B2B marketplaces are discovering creative new ways to monetize their networks, ensuring their approach is tailored to the complex and nuanced world of B2B e-commerce. I’ll delve into each of these models below, providing examples of marketplaces that have successfully begun implementing them.

What makes B2B transactions unique? Before discussing how B2B marketplaces can deploy new business models, it’s important to think about how B2B transactions typically work.

Payment methods: There are four main ways to make a B2B payment: paper check, ACH transfer, electronic fund transfer (wires), and credit/debit cards. Nearly half of B2B payments are still made by paper check, but digital payment solutions are quickly gaining.

Financing: It is customary in B2B transactions to pay “with terms,” such as net 30 or net 60, effectively giving a line of credit to the business buyer that enables them to send payment after delivery of the good or service. Supply-chain financing and dynamic discounting are two mechanisms business buyers use to settle invoices with suppliers on preferred timelines.

Bulk discounts: Business buyers often expect and receive discounts in return for placing high-volume orders. While not a concept unique to B2B, negotiated or custom volume discounts can complicate the checkout process.

Contractual pricing: Businesses often enter into enterprise-level pricing agreements with their suppliers. In some B2B verticals, such as the veterinary supplies market, there is little consistency and transparency regarding the market price of any given item; instead, each buyer pays a bespoke price tied to contractual agreements. This dynamic typically benefits suppliers, which can price discriminate based on buyers’ ability and willingness to pay.

Delivery method and timing: Unlike consumers, businesses may place orders for goods but delay delivery for weeks or months. This is particularly common in the commodities market, where futures contracts specify a commodity to be delivered on a certain date in the future. B2B transactions typically include a negotiation on delivery method and timing.

Insurance: Business buyers frequently purchase insurance as part of their transactions, particularly in high-value verticals such as jewelry. Insurance is designed to protect against damage to the goods in transit or theft.

Compliance: In some verticals, particularly those related to healthcare and chemicals, there is a heavy compliance burden to ensure goods are properly sourced and transported. Is the seller legally registered to sell and transport sensitive goods such as medical equipment or pharmaceuticals?

With all of these considerations, it’s no wonder B2B e-commerce has been slower to digitize than B2C. From product discovery through the checkout process, a consumer buying a bag of licorice looks nothing like a retailer buying 100,000 bags of licorice from a distributor. The good news for B2B marketplace founders is that, based on the parameters above, there are many creative ways to extract value from transactions that go beyond the GMV take rate. Let’s explore some of the creative ways to monetize a B2B marketplace.

#advertising-tech, #apps, #b2b, #column, #crm, #e-commerce, #ecommerce, #finance, #marketing, #online-marketplace, #retail-stores, #software-platform, #startups, #tc

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Swappie bags $40.6M to sell more secondhand iPhones across Europe

Finland-based Swappie has closed a €35.8 million ($40.6M) Series B to expand into new markets in Europe. The ecommerce business refurbishes and resells used iPhones, taking care of the entire process from testing and repairing used handsets, to selling the refurbished devices via its own marketplace, with a 12-month warranty.

Local VC and private equity firm TESI is a new investor in the Series B, along with Lifeline Ventures, Reaktor Ventures and Inventure Investors, all of whom participated in Swappie’s 2019 Series A. The total raised to date since the business was founded in 2016 is $48M.

Right now Swappie operates in Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Italy. The new financing will be used to expand across Europe, beginning with launches in Germany, Ireland, Portugal and the Netherlands this summer.

It’s also eyeing expansion beyond Europe — so will be speccing out a broader roadmap for the future.

“The main focus of this round is to become the number one player in Europe. But also to explore opportunities outside Europe as well,” says CEO and co-founder Sami Marttinen. “That’s something we will be looking into but no concrete plans to announce at this point.

“There are still opportunities for our business model everywhere in the world. So it’s a matter of just building the roadmap — where to go next.”

Swappie’s Jiri Heinonen (CMO) and Sami Marttinen (CEO) (Photo credit: Swappie)

Swappie touts growing consumer demand in the region to buy refurbished phones, saying that from 2018 to 2019 revenues grew 4x, hitting $35M+ in net revenue in 2019. It’s also seeing demand continuing to grow this year — recording a 5x increase in net revenue growth in April and May 2020 vs the same period last year, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, the trend of consumers shifting to buying more online looks to be a help for its online marketplace.

Commenting on Swappie’s Series B in a statement, Tony Nysten, Investment Manager at TESI, said: “We believe there is a huge growth opportunity for Swappie. The smartphone market in Europe is worth over €100BN but used or refurbished phones currently make up just over 10% of that and only one in four pre-owned phones are currently re-sold. Through its rapid growth to date, Swappie has proven its ability to not just grow market share within the refurbished market, but to expand the size of the category overall. The business has enormous potential.”

Swappie’s early choice of market focus included not only familiar turf in the Nordics — but Italy, in Southern Europe. The latter was chosen deliberately on account of it being a tough market for ecommerce, per Marttinen.

“In the really early days the reason why we went to Italy was because it was one of the toughest ecommerce markets in Europe — they have a really low ecommerce maturity index. It’s very different in terms of shopping behavior. You need to build another level of trust in that market. There are lots of unique traits like cash on delivery, things like that. So we knew that in order to really conquer the market globally — and to be able to deliver on our global ambitions we would need to enter as difficult markets as early in our journey as possible.

“These days we have a much more advanced playbook and market studies across Europe.”

Swappie describes itself as a ‘scale-up’ tech business on account of addressing the whole value chain, per Marttinen.

“We’ve done a lot there on the hardware side — when it comes to actually refurbishing the devices we can make them even stronger then the original devices in many cases. So that means we can go as deep as onto the motherboard level in the repairs. Then on the software side, of course, we’re making selling and distribution and everything else scalable. Making sure that the checking processes and all the processes in the factory are according to the latest standards,” he says.

“Because of being so focused in also building the processes and focusing on the quality so much, so actually we have been able to truly change the way people consume electronics,” he adds. “If you think about it from a local player perspective they are typically mostly competing for the people who are already buying used devices — whereas we are able to deliver on this market by having full control of the entire value chain, from buying to refurbishing, to selling the phones to consumers.

“Most of our customers are buying used or refurbished devices for the first time — so actually our biggest competitors are new smartphone retailers.”

The most popular iPhone model sold on Swappie’s marketplace last year was the iPhone 8, per Marttinen.

He won’t disclosed the exact number of iPhones Swappie has refurbished and sold at this point but he says it’s a six-figure number — aka ‘hundreds of thousands’. 

The team chose to focus on iPhones to ensure they can deliver the highest quality device refurbishment, he says, while also benefiting from the relatively higher cost of Apple’s smartphone hardware vs Android devices. Though he doesn’t rule out expanding to offer another type of refurbished smartphone in future.  

“The business is now growing really rapidly but what we noticed in the early days is that the new device prices had started to rise before we started this business so we have been very lucky with the timing,” he tells TechCrunch, noting that Swappie also benefitted from the plateauing into advancements between handset models in recent years, as the technology matured.

“If you can build trust into this business, and make sure that the phones function as well as new devices — and that you’re actually making the buying process as well as safe as buying a new phone — that way you can actually accelerate the growth of the market. So that’s what we have been really successful in. It’s kind of the key to being able to grow so quickly.”

“One main point there has been that because we refurbish every device ourselves in our own factory in Finland we can deliver to customers the highest quality devices under warranty for much less than the cost of a new phone and also be more environmentally friendly,” he adds.

While, in years past, there have been instances of iPhone users’ devices bricked after a repair by an unauthorized repair shop Marttinen says Swappie is using only original iPhone parts so has avoided such problems.

He also points to recent European Commission proposals for a pan-EU ‘right to repair’ for electronics which suggests device makers selling in the region will be required to respect repairability, rather than using software updates as a way to penalize consumers who seek to extend the lifespan of their current device.

Photo credit: Swappie

Swappie’s business also slots into a wider Commission mission to transition the EU to a circular economy, as part of the green deal announced by current president, Ursula von der Leyen — so it’s skating to where the puck is headed, if you like.

“It’s really good for the environment that the right to repair legislation has come forward in the past few years. That’s one very important point for us as well which was one of the reasons why we wanted to built microscope level repairs in our factories — so we wouldn’t have to scrap as many phones as you normally would,” Marttinen adds.

What can’t it repair? The proportion of iPhones which turn out to be truly unsalvageable via its processes is “extremely small“, he says. “We can actually do any repairs that are possible to do the phones so, basically, water damaged phones which have been at the bottom of the ocean — those are of course unrepairable. Or if the phone is bent too much or if the motherboard is completely ruined. But basically all the other faults we can repair.”

On the competitive front, he says Swappie’s main rival are retailers selling new iPhones — given it’s trying to woo iOS users away from buying a brand new iPhone. On the secondhand marketplace front Marttinen mentions reBuy as one of the main rival players in refurbishing and reselling electronics, though it does not focus on iPhones — offering a full range of devices, from wearables to smartphones and tablets, laptops, consoles and cameras.

#circular-economy, #e-commerce, #ecommerce, #europe, #european-commission, #finland, #greentech, #iphone, #italy, #lifeline-ventures, #mobile, #online-marketplace, #smartphone-hardware, #smartphones, #swappie

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Europe asks for views on platform governance and competition tools

The European Commission is asking for views on how online platforms should be regulated in future, launching a public consultation today on the forthcoming Digital Services Act (DSA).

This pan-EU legislative proposal, due before the end of the year, is slated to rework the regional rulebook for digital services, including tackling controversial issues such as liability for user-generated content and online disinformation.

Modernising and updating rules related to ecommerce and online marketplaces to foster competitive by ensuring a level playing field in digital markets is another stated aim. 

Whether the DSA will prove as divisive as the EU’s copyright reform remains to be seen — but the stakes are high indeed.  

In parallel today, the Commission is soliciting views on possible updates to pan-EU competition regulation, asking whether a new tool is needed to beef up enforcement powers in the digital era.

Rebooting Europe’s digital regulation

The DSA consultation, which runs until September 8, covers issues including safety online, freedom of expression, fairness and a level-playing field in the digital economy, per the Commission, which says it’s seeking input from people, businesses, online platforms, academics, civil society and “all interested parties” to shape the planned governance framework for digital services.

Of course it’s already heard plenty on this topic from tech giant lobbyists.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg even sat down for a livestreamed discussion alongside European commissioner Thierry Breton last month — only to be lectured on the need for digital giants to pay their fair share of taxes.

But the Commission wants businesses of all stripes and sizes to chip into the consultation. After all, the most dominant platforms have the most to lose from any change of pan-EU rules.

And perhaps especially from changes that result in defining a specific set of “responsibilities” for the largest platforms.

Commenting in a statement, Commission EVP, Margrethe Vestager, said: The Internet presents citizens and businesses with great opportunities, which they balance against risks that come with working and interacting online. At this time, we are asking for the views of interested citizens and stakeholders on how to make a modern regulatory framework for digital services and online platforms in the EU. Many of these questions impact the day-to-day lives of citizens and we are committing to build a safe and innovative digital future with purpose for them.”

“Online platforms have taken a central role in our life, our economy and our democracy. With such a role comes greater responsibility, but this can happen only against the backdrop of a modern rulebook for digital services,” said Breton in another statement. “We will listen to all views and reflect together to find the right balance between a safe Internet for all, protecting freedom of expression and ensuring space to innovate in the EU single market.”

The DSA package will contain a number of strands, with one set of rules focused on updating the EU’s existing eCommerce Directive — which dates back two decades at this point.

“Building on these principles, we aim to establish clearer and modern rules concerning the role and obligations of online intermediaries, including non-EU ones active in the EU, as well as a more effective governance system to ensure that such rules are correctly enforced across the EU single Market while guaranteeing the respect of fundamental rights,” the Commission said today.

A second component is aimed at ensuring fairness in European digital markets which have become dominated by a few large online platforms that act as gatekeepers.

EU institutions have already adopted one legislative measure aimed at platform marketplace fairness — due to come into force next month. But the Commission believes more is needed and is now exploring building on that foundation with additional rules to foster competition — potentially around (non-personal) data sharing.

“We will explore rules to address these market imbalances, to ensure that consumers have the widest choice and that the EU single market for digital services remains competitive and open to innovation. This could be through additional general rules for all platforms of a certain scale, such as rules on self-preferencing, and/or through tailored regulatory obligations for specific gatekeepers, such as non-personal data access obligations, specific requirements regarding personal data portability, or interoperability requirements,” it said today.

The consultation is also asking for views on other “emergent” issues related to online platforms — including working conditions for platform workers who are providing a service via these marketplaces.

Gig economy platforms continue to face legal challenges in Europe over their classification of platform workers as ‘self employed’, a status that reduces the benefits they are entitled to as a result of their labor.

On competition policy, the Commission has today published an inception impact assessment and opened up another public consultation — inviting comments on whether EU regulators need a new competition tool to allow them to address structural competition problems in a timely and effective manner.

The pace of competition enforcement vs the speed of Internet-enabled disruption has led to criticism that current remedies applied to problematic digital business practices come far too late to be effective.

Commenting on this in another supporting statement, Vestager, who also heads up EU competition policy, said: “The world is changing fast and it is important that the competition rules are fit for that change. Our rules have an inbuilt flexibility which allows us to deal with a broad range of anti-competitive conduct across markets. We see, however, that there are certain structural risks for competition, such as tipping markets, which are not addressed by the current rules. We are seeking the views of stakeholders to explore the need for a possible new competition tool that would allow addressing such structural competition problems, in a timely and effective manner ensuring fair and competitive markets across the economy.”

The Commission says it has concluded that ensuring the “contestability” and “fair functioning” of markets is likely to require a “holistic and comprehensive approach” — emphasizing that this should involve continued vigorous enforcement of existing EU rules (including the use of so-called ‘interim measures’, where appropriate; an old tool Vestager has recently dusted off and unboxed).

But — additionally — it’s considering supplementing existing antitrust rules with ex-ante regulation of digital platforms (“including additional requirements for those that play a gatekeeper role”); and the aforementioned possible new competition tool for dealing with structural competition problems that have proven tricky to tackle with current measures (such as preventing markets from tipping).

“The new competition tool should enable the Commission to address gaps in the current competition rules and to intervene against structural competition problems across markets in a timely and effective manner,” it writes.

“After establishing a structural competition problem through a rigorous market investigation during which rights of defence are fully respected, the new tool should allow the Commission to impose behavioural and where appropriate, structural remedies. However, there would be no finding of an infringement, nor would any fines be imposed on the market participants.”

Stakeholders have until June 30 to submit views on the Commission’s inception impact assessment, while the public consultation on the potential new competition tool is taking submissions until September 8.

Subject to the outcome of the impact assessment the Commission adds that a legislative proposal is scheduled for Q4.

Interestingly, for Commission watchers, the consultation on the possibility of ex-ante regulation of digital platforms — which is clearly forming part of Vestager’s thinking on ensuring functionally competitive markets, given it’s included in the competition reform discussion — has not been included in the competition consultation — but rather slotted into the DSA consultation, which is being led by Breton.

The two commissioners not only have very different personal styles but appear opposed on policy substance, with Vestager being comfortable voicing support for regulating digital technologies while Breton continues to express reluctance to do so, preferring to court industry engagement — and couching regulation as a last, unwelcome resort.

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Knowde could make billions building the digital marketplace for the $5 trillion chemicals industry

Ali Amin-Javaheri grew up in the chemicals business.

His father had worked for Iran’s state-owned chemical company and when the family fled the country in the nineteen eighties during the Iran-Iraq war, they first settled in Houston where employers welcomed the senior Amin-Jahaveri’s experience.

Houston in the 80s was dominated by the petrochemicals industry and by the time the family later relocated to Washington State, Amin-Jahaveri was already deeply steeped in a world of covalent bonds, chemical cracking, and the molecular coupling and decoupling of matter.

For the former Texas chemical kid, moving to tech-heavy, rain-soaked Washington, dominated at the time by Microsoft, was a bit of a shock, the founder recalled. But it was the 2000s and everyone was in tech so Amin-Jahaveri figured that’d be his path too.

Those two worlds collided for the young University of Washington graduate in his very first job — his only job before launching his first startup — as a programmer and developer at Chempoint.

“Completely through happenstance I was walking around a certain part of Seattle and I walked by this building and it had all these logos outside the office. I saw this logo for a company called Chempoint and I was instantly intrigued,” Amin-Jahaveri said. “I walked up to the receptionist and asked what they were doing.”

In the summer of 2001, Amazon was an online bookseller a little over seven years old, the dot-com boom hadn’t gone completely bust quite yet and business-to-business marketplaces were a hot investment.

“It was a startup with just a handful of folks,” said Amin-Jahaveri. “There wasn’t a business model in place, but the intent was to build a marketplace for chemicals… The dot-com boom was happening and everything was moving on line and the chemicals industry likely will as well.”

Fifteen years later, Chempoint is one of the last remaining companies in a market that once boasted at least fifteen competitors — and the chemicals industry still doesn’t have a true online marketplace. Until (potentially) now, with the launch of Amin-Jahaveri’s first startup — Knowde.

A volumetric flask, used during the process of determining phosphorus content in crude edible oil, sits in a laboratory of the quality assurance department at the Ruchi Soya Industries Ltd. edible oil refinery plant in Patalganga, India, on Tuesday, June 18, 2013. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For the vast majority of Americans, the chemicals industry remains a ubiquitous abstraction. Consumers have a direct relationship with the energy business through the movements of prices at the pump, but the ways in which barrels of oil get converted into the plastics, coatings, films, flavors, fillings, soaps, toothpastes, enamels and unguents that touch everyone’s daily life are a little bit less obvious.

It’s a massive industry. The U.S. accounted for 17% of the global chemicals market in 2017 and that percentage amounted to a staggering $765 billion in sales. Worldwide there are thousands of chemicals companies selling hundreds of different specialty chemicals each and all contributing to a total market worth trillions of dollars.

“The market is $5 trillion,” said Amin-Jahaveri. “Just to be super clear about that.. It’s $5 trillion worth of transactions happening every year.”

It’s no secret that venture capitalists love marketplaces. Replacing physical middlemen with electronic ones offers efficiencies and economies of scale that have a cold logic and avoid the messiness of human contact. For the past twenty years, different entrepreneurs have cropped to tackle creating systems that could connect buyers on one side with sellers on another — and the chemicals industry has been investors’ holy grail since Chempoint made its pitch to the market in 2001.

“The chemicals industry is the most interesting of all of them. It’s the biggest. It’s also the most fragmented,” said Sequoia partner Shaun Maguire. “There were three companies in the world that all did about $90 billion in sales and none of those three companies did more than 1.6% of sales of the entire industry.” 

Those kinds of numbers would make any investor’s jaw drop. And several firms tried to make a pitch for the hotly contested financing round for Knowde. Maguire first heard that there looking for funds to pursue the creation of the first true marketplace business for the chemicals industry through a finance associate at Sequoia, Spencer Hemphill.

Hemphill knew an early Knowde investor named Ian Rountree at Cantos Ventures and had heard Rountree talk about the new company. He flagged the potential deal to Maguire and another Sequoia partner. It only took one hour for Maguire to be blown away by Amin-Jahaveri’s pedigree in the industry and his vision for Knowde.

From that initial meeting in September to the close of the company’s $14 million Series A round on March 11 (the day the markets suffered their worst COVID-19-related losses), Maguire was tracking the company’s progress. Other firms in the running for the Knowde deal included big names like General Catalyst, according to people with knowledge of the process.

Sequoia wound up leading the Series A deal for Knowde, which also included previous investors Refactor Capital, 8VC, and Cantos Ventures.

The tipping point for Maguire was the rapid adoption and buy-in from the industry when Knowde flipped the switch on sales in early January.

An employee of International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF) picks up perfume components on December 8, 2016 at the company’s laboratory in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris. / AFP / PATRICK KOVARIK (Photo credit should read PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP via Getty Images)

For at least the past fifty years, the modern chemicals industry has been defined — and in some ways constrained — by its sales pitches. There are specialty manufacturers who have hundreds of chemicals that they’ve made, but the knowledge of what those chemicals can do is often locked inside research labs. The companies rely on distributors, middlemen, and internal sales teams to get the word out, according to Maguire and Amin-Jahaveri.

The way that things are done is still through field sales teams and product catalogs and brochures and face to face meetings and all that stuff,” said Amin-Jahaveri. “This industry has not evolved as quickly as the rest of the world… And we always knew that something has got to give.”

One selling point for Knowde is that it breaks that logjam, according to investors like Maguire.

“One of the references said that they had a bunch of legacy flavors from the seventies,” Maguire said. “It was a  Madagascar Vanilla that none of their sales people had tried to sell for 25 years… By putting them on Knowde the sales numbers had gone up over 1,000%… That company does over $5 billion a year in sales through flavors.”

The change happened as the old guard of executives began aging out of the business, according to Amin-Jahaveri. “Between 2002 and 2012 nothing happened.. There was no VC money thrown at any type chemical company and then it started changing a little bit,” he said. “The first domino was the changing age demographic… these consumer product companies kept getting younger.”

Amin-Jahaveri’s previous company grew to $400 million in revenue selling technology and services to the chemicals industry. It was back-end software and customer relationship tools that the industry had never had and needed if it were to begin the process of joining the digital world. Knowde, according to Amin-Jahaveri, is the next phase of that transition.

“Our plan is to connect the chemical producers directly with the buyers,” Amin-Jahaveri said. “And provide all the plumbing and storefronts necessary to manage these things themselves.”

All that Knowde needed to do was collate the disparate data about what chemicals small manufacturers were making and had in stock and begin listing that information online. That transparency of information used to be more difficult to capture, since companies viewed their product catalog as an extension of their intellectual property — almost a trade secret, according to Amin-Jahaveri.

Once companies began listing products online, Amin-Jahaveri and his team could go to work creating a single, searchable taxonomy that would allow outsiders to find the materials they needed without having to worry about differences in descriptions.

Knowde has broken down the chemicals industry into ten different verticals including: food, pharmaceuticals, personal care, houseware goods, industrial chemicals. The company currently operates in three different verticals and plans to extend into all ten within the year.

Amin-Jahaveri knows that he’s not going to get a meaningful chunk of business from the huge chemical manufacturers like BASF or Dow Chemical that pump out thousands of tons of commodity chemicals, those deals only represent $2 trillion of the total addressable market.

That means another $3 trillion in sales are up for grabs for the company Amin-Jahaveri founded with his partner Woyzeck Krupa.

While the opportunity is huge, the company — like every other new business launching in 2020 — is still trying to do business in the middle of the worst economic collapse in American history. However, Amin-Jahaveri thinks the new economic reality could actually work in Knowde’s favor.

“It’s going to be one more trigger event for these chemical companies that they have to go online,” he said. The personal relationships that drove much of the sales for the chemicals business before have dried up. No more conferences and events means no more opportunities to glad-hand, backslap, and chat over drinks at the hotel bar. So these companies need to find a new way to sell.

Maguire sees another benefit to the movement of chemical catalogs into an online marketplace, and that’s internal transparency within chemical companies.

“Even the biggest companies in the world do not have an internal search feature even for their own chemicals,” said Maguire. “I talked to two of the biggest companies in the world. In the case of one chemist who is a friend of mine. If you are trying to formulate some new concoction how do you find what chemicals you have in the company? If it’s in my division it’s pretty easy.. If I need chemicals from another division… there’s no way to search it right now.”

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