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Chinese podcasting and audio content app Lizhi debuts on Nasdaq

18:01 | 17 January

Lizhi, one of China’s biggest audio content apps, is debuting on Nasdaq today under the ticker symbol LIZI. It is the first of its major competitors, Ximalaya and Dragonfly, to go public (though Ximalaya is expected to also list in the United States later this year). Lizhi is offering 4.1 million shares at an IPO price of $11 per share.

Though Lizhi, Ximalaya and Dragonfly each host podcasts, audiobooks and livestreams, Lizhi, whose investors include Xiaomi, TPG, Matrix Partners China, Morningside Venture Capital and Orchid Asia, has differentiated itself by focusing on user-generated content created with the app’s recording tools.

According to market research firm iResearch, it has the largest community of user-generated audio content in China. The company said that in the third quarter of 2019, it had a base of 46.6 million average monthly active users on mobile and 5.7 million average monthly active content creators. While podcasts in the U.S. typically use revenue models based on ads or subscriptions, creators on Lizhi and other Chinese podcasting apps monetize through virtual gifts, similar to the ones given by viewers during video livestreams.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Lizhi CEO Marco Lai said the company plans to use proceeds from the IPO to invest in product development and its AI technology. Lizhi uses AI tech to distribute podcasts, which it says results in a 31% click rate on content. AI is also used to monitor content, give creators instant user engagement data and provide features that allow them to fine-tune recordings, reduce noise and create 3D audio.

Despite its quick growth, Lai says online audio in China is still an emerging segment. About 45.5% of total mobile internet users in China listened to online audio content in 2018, but adoption is expected to increase as IoT devices like smart speakers become more popular, especially in smaller cities. Lizhi has a partnership with Baidu for its Xiaodu smart speakers, and develop new ways of distributing content for IoT devices, says Lai.



As the Nasdaq sets new records, a reminder how highly valued tech stocks are today

00:54 | 17 December

Today the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite closed at an all-time record high of 8,814.23, up 0.91% on the day.

The Nasdaq is up more than 32% on the year. Turning the clock back, the Nasdaq Composite is up around 60% from the end of 2016. Compared to the anti-records set in 2009 during the doldrums that followed the 2008 crisis, the Nasdaq is up a staggering 594%.

The huge run in value of technology stocks since the last recession is historic. And, given the length of the current global economic expansion, somewhat lost on regular folks.

Times are good, and it’s worth reminding ourselves of how good. After all, the private markets — the world of startups, venture capital and the next big companies — follow the public markets’ lead. If we understand what’s going on with tech stocks, we’ll better understand what is happening with your local startup cohort.

Or more precisely, if you’ve been confused about why every startup is worth a bajillion (plus or minus) dollars, this is why.

A record run

Putting today’s Nasdaq level into historical context is a bit difficult. It has been so long since the last, lasting correction in the value of technology companies that their aggregate share price chart is simply up and to the right. Can you recall the last time tech stocks dropped real value, and stayed down?

Probably not. The reason why is that compared to the post-2008 expansion, the 2000-era technology bubble appears small, pathetic and short-lived. Via YCharts, here’s a look at the Nasdaq Composite going back into the ’80s:

That, in a nutshell is why there are so many unicorns in the market; that chart is why SaaS multiples are still around 10-11x ARR (per Bessemer, which is rebuilding its cloud index page at the moment). That chart is a part of why Uber’s valuation got ahead of its real value. It’s also why venture capital funds have gotten larger, private equity deals more expensive and SoftBank may raise a second Vision Fund despite a host of high-profile wobbles. It’s how Microsoft added mow than 50% of its total value this year.

You get the idea.

The stock market is incredibly strong right now, a fact that is pushing lots of private investors to pay more for growth in anticipation that companies’ revenue multiples will stay high (as dictated by public comps, or what larger companies are willing to pay for startups). So long as the Nasdaq keeps going up, that bet makes the punters look smart.

So what?

We could have written this post a few times in the past week, let alone this year.  Of course, we can’t post a similar entry every time a tech-focused index hits a new record high — you’d fine it repetitive. But we also can’t not mention it every time, as it is critical to recall that today’s warm climate for startups is predicated on a public market trend that will not — cannot — last.

When will things change? No one knows. So far this December there’s no mini-crash to worry about. Things just look good, and healthy, and flush with new records.



Chaka opens up global investing to Africa’s most populous nation

10:00 | 13 November

Fintech startup Chaka aims to open up online investingd to Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria.

The seed-stage company recently went live with its mobile-based platform that offers Nigerians stock trading in over 40 countries.

Chaka positions itself as a passport to local and global investing. The startup has created an API and interface that allows Nigerians with a bank account (and who meet KYC requirements) to create trading accounts to purchase global blue chip and local Nigerian stocks.

Investors can get started with as little as 1000 Naira or $10 to create a local and global wallet to trade, according to Chaka founder and CEO Tosin Osibodu.

The platform has partnerships with two brokers to facilitate stock purchases: Citi Investment Capital and U.S. based DriveWealth.

“Embedded in our offer is the ability to buy on the local stock market…we make it more seamless than usual, and assets…from this whole universe outside the continent,” said Osibodu.

The Nigerian Stock Exchange has been upgrading its platform to digitize and accommodate more listings. It has a five-year partnership with NASDAQ and Airtel Africa listed on the NSE in July. 

On the Chaka’s addressable market, “Our outlook is that within Nigeria…between one and two million people are strongly in the market for this product,” Osibodu said.

Tosin Osibodu

Chaka looks to offer more than stocks. “Our product road-map includes not just equities, but other investment products people are interested in — mutual funds, fixed income products, and eventually even cryptocurrencies — so that really expands our bounds,” said Osibodu.

Chaka’s fee structure is 100 Naira (or 3%) for local trades and $4.00 for global trades.

To mitigate the FX risk of the often volatile Nigerian Naira, the startup converts locally to dollars and funds client trades in USD. Chaka agrees to intra-day forward rates at 9am each day and locks them in until 2pm for transactional activity on its platform, according to Osibodu

Chaka hasn’t disclosed amounts, but confirms its has received pre-seed funding from Nigerian founder and investor Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, aka E.

The startup is in a unique position in African fintech. The sector receives the bulk of the continent’s VC (according WeeTracker), but most of it is directed toward P2P payments startups — vs. personal investment platforms.

An alum of U-Penn and Dartmouth, Chaka’s founder got the idea to form the venture, in part, due to challenges attempting to access well-known trading platforms, such as E-Trade.

“I tried to open these accounts and whenever I…disclosed I was Nigerian very shortly after those accounts were closed or denied,” said Osibodu. 

For decades, Nigeria has been known as an originating country for online fraud, commonly referred to as 419 scams. This is something for which the country’s legitimate business operators pay an undue reputational cost, according to Osibodu. 

In recent years, Nigeria has also become a magnet for legitimate business in Africa. The country has the continent’s leading movie and entertainment industry and has emerged as a hotspot for startup formation and VC activity.

Chaka backer Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, who confirmed his investment in the company to TechCrunch, believes progressive trends in Nigeria will open up a new investor class.

In addition to Aboyeji, Chaka has also received seed-funds from Microtraction, a Lagos located early-stage investment shop founded by Yele Bademosi and supported by Y-Combinator CEO Michael Seibel.

Chaka allows for API integrations and has a developer team. The company has created an automated customer verification process. “It sounds trivial compared to the American market, but it’s a bit of a first in Nigeria,” said CEO Tosin Osibodu.

On Chaka’s long-game, “The grand mission of the company is to reduce capital market access barriers,” cording to Osibodu.

“With a two to five million customer base — and a $40 to $200 ARPU — on the really conservative end that’s a $100 million revenue opportunity,” he said.















IEX’s Katsuyama is no flash in the pan

18:10 | 17 September

When you watch a commercial for one of the major stock exchanges, you are welcomed into a world of fast-moving, slick images full of glistening buildings, lush crops and happy people. They are typically interspersed with shots of intrepid executives veering out over the horizon as if to say, “I’ve got a long-term vision, and the exchange where my stock is listed is a valuable partner in achieving my goals.” It’s all very reassuring and stylish. But there’s another side to the story.

I have been educated about the realities of today’s stock exchange universe through recent visits with Brad Katsuyama, co-founder and CEO of IEX (a.k.a. The Investors Exchange). If Katsuyama’s name rings a bell, and you don’t work on Wall Street, it’s likely because you remember him as the protagonist of Michael Lewis’s 2014 best-seller, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, which explored high-frequency trading (HFT) and made the case that the stock market was rigged, really badly.

Five years later, some of the worst practices Lewis highlighted are things of the past, and there are several attributes of the American equity markets that are widely admired around the world. In many ways, though, the realities of stock trading have gotten more unseemly, thanks to sophisticated trading technologies (e.g., microwave radio transmissions that can carry information at almost the speed of light), and pitched battles among the exchanges, investors and regulators over issues including the rebates stock exchanges pay to attract investors’ orders and the price of market data charged by the exchanges.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the inner workings of the stock market, but I do know this: Likening the life cycle of a trade to sausage-making is an insult to kielbasa. More than ever, trading is an arcane, highly technical and bewildering part of our broader economic infrastructure, which is just the way many industry participants like it: Nothing to see here, folks.

Meanwhile, Katsuyama, company president Ronan Ryan and the IEX team have turned IEX into the eighth largest stock exchange company, globally, by notional value traded, and have transformed the concept of a “speed bump” into a mainstream exchange feature.

Brad Aug 12

Brad Katsuyama. Image via IEX Trading

Despite these and other accomplishments, IEX finds itself in the middle of a vicious battle with powerful incumbents that seem increasingly emboldened to use their muscle in Washington, D.C. What’s more, new entrants, such as The Long-Term Stock Exchange and Members Exchange, are gearing up to enter the fray in US equities, while global exchanges such as the Hong Kong Stock Exchange seek to bulk up by making audacious moves like attempting to acquire the venerable London Stock Exchange.

But when you sell such distinct advantages to one group that really can only benefit from that, it leads to the question of why anyone would want to trade on that market. It’s like walking into a playing field where you know that the deck is stacked against you.

As my discussion with Katsuyama reveals, IEX may have taken some punches in carving out a position for itself in this high-stakes war characterized by cutting-edge technology and size. However, the IEX team remains girded for battle and confident that it can continue to make headway in offering a fair and transparent option for market participants over the long term.

Gregg Schoenberg: Given Flash Boys and the attention it generated for you on Main Street, I’d like to establish something upfront. Does IEX exist for the asset manager, the individual, or both?

Brad Katsuyama: We exist primarily for the asset manager, and helping them helps the individual. We’re one step removed from the individual, and part of that is due to regulation. Only brokers can connect to exchanges, and the asset manager connects to the broker.

Schoenberg: To put a finer point on it, you believe in fairness and being the good guy. But you are not Robinhood. You are a capitalist.

Katsuyama: Yes, but we want to make money fairly. Actually, we thought initially about starting the business as a nonprofit, But once we laid out all the people we would need to convince to work for us, we realized it would’ve been hard for us to attract the skill sets needed as a nonprofit.

Schoenberg: Do you believe that the US equity market today primarily serves investors or traders?



Peloton files publicly for IPO

00:20 | 28 August

Peloton, the well-funded maker of high-tech bikes and treadmills, has revealed documents for its upcoming initial public offering. The business previously submitted a confidential draft submission of its S-1 statement to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in June.

The company will trade on the Nasdaq under the ticker symbol PTON.

Peloton, founded in 2012, raised $550 million in venture capital funding last year at a valuation of $4 billion. The startup, which initially struggled greatly to convince venture capitalists of its vision, has since inspired a new wave of fitness tech companies to launch, including a smart mirror company appropriately named “Mirror.”

This story is developing.



The misunderstandings of 18-month-old Luckin’s $500m IPO

21:30 | 13 May

Luckin Coffee is the most energizing IPO in recent memory, and not just because it sells caffeine.

Most venture-backed startups can take a decade to reach the public markets. Luckin cut that time down to about 18 months. Founder Jenny Qian Zhiya opened a trial coffee shop in Beijing, with a focus on rapid coffee delivery and mobile app ordering. Fast forward to today, and the company’s 2,370 stores conducted nearly 17 million transactions in the most recent quarter ending March 31.

Now Luckin — which can barely offer year-over-year comparables — intends to list its American depository shares (ADSs) on Nasdaq in the coming weeks, hoping to raise over $500 million through the IPO.

Understanding and going long or short on this company requires that we drop the facile analogies (aka it’s Starbucks!), understand the context of startup growth in China, and take a (rare) bet on a high-flying growth company in the public markets.

The incredibly useless Starbucks analogy

Lonely Planet via Getty Images

There is nothing in the United States that compares to Luckin. But that hasn’t stopped journalists, financial analysts, and what I suspect is Luckin’s own PR folks from making the obvious coffee chain comparison.



Lyft pops 21% on its first day of trading on Nasdaq, after raising $2.2B in its IPO at a $24B valuation

18:51 | 29 March

Ride-hailing startup Lyft may bear the distinction bearing highest net loss of any maiden public company ever going public, but despite that, it made its debut in a high gear this morning in. Trading as LYFT on Nasdaq, the company’s shares opened at nearly noon today at $87.24, a pop of 21 percent on the $72/share figure the company set last night, when it raised $2.34 billion from investors, valuing the company at $24 billion.

Expectations for how Lyft would do had already been high, after the company priced at the high end of its range of $70-72, which itself was an increase on the range it had set the prior week, a sign of strong demand from investors during its roadshow.

Lyft’s performance so far is a significant next chapter for the company and sets the stage for what to expect from other “gig economy” businesses when they go public — and notably, what we might expect from Uber, Lyft’s larger direct competitor.

(Indeed, Lyft’s strong showing is the first big tech IPO of the year, although many expect that it won’t be the last. In addition to Uber, among the tech startups expected to go public this year, Pinterest has also filed paperwork in recent weeks, and others like Slack and potentially Airbnb are also expected to be coming down the pike.)

The bigger question will be how Lyft handles the markets longer term, whether it continues to rise or faces the “Snap” effect.

Lyft is riding into Nasdaq fuelled by some very strong metrics. As a private startup, Lyft had raised $5.1 billion from a wide range of investors that include the likes of VCs like Andreessen Horowitz, as well as many strategics like Google, Rakuten and Didi, with its valuation climbing as high as $15 billion (note significant up-valuation with IPO).

Its 2018 revenues of nearly $2.2 billion are some of the highest-ever of any company ever going public (Google and Facebook have had  the two highest ever). The company took $8.1 billion in bookings last year on strong growth, and its network covers 30.7 million riders and 1.9 million drivers.

All encouraging numbers, except for some minor details. The first is that Lyft has yet to actually make a profit. It lost $911 million in 2018, the highest net loss for any company ever going public. With the company still in high-growth mode, it will continue spending to woo more riders and drivers and pick up more market share, and investing in new services and technology to augment its business in the future. In other words, on its current course, profits won’t come soon.

The second minor detail might also throw a spanner into Lyft’s engine: there are still many question marks hanging over how these services will grow relative to other macroeconomic forces, and specifically how government regulation will impact that. As one pre-emptive move to appeal (or appease) on that front, Lyft today also announced a new initiative it calls City Works, where Lyft will donate $50 million, or one percent of profits — whichever is larger — towards city transportation initiatives, beginning with Los Angeles.

In any event, this IPO is a way for the company to continue raising even more capital to fill up the tank to ride out and overtake all those challenges, while giving existing investors a chance to cash out on the growth so far — banking on the premise that there will be more investors willing to buy into the long-term promise that all of this will come good, and into the black, in the end.

There’s a lot riding on that pink moustache.



Lyft unveils its S-1 and nearly $1B in 2018 losses

20:17 | 1 March

The day has finally come. U.S. ridehailing giant Lyft has unveiled its S-1, the official document required by the Securities and Exchange Commission to go public.

The San Francisco-headquartered business will debut on the Nasdaq stock exchange under the ticker symbol “LYFT.”  JPMorgan Chase & Co., Credit Suisse Group AG and Jefferies Financial Group Inc. will lead the initial public offering expected to value Lyft at upwards of $20 billion, a significant leap from its most recent private valuation of $15.1 billion.

The company hasn’t determined how many shares it will sell or a price range. The filing currently lists an offering size of $100M, though that is typically a placeholder amount.

According to the filing, Lyft recorded $2.2 billion in revenue in 2018, more than double the $1 billion recorded in 2017. Meanwhile losses have been growing considerably. The company posted a net loss of $911 million on $2.2 billion in revenue and a $688 million loss on 2017 revenue.

Lyft’s key stakeholders include Rakuten, a Japenese ecommerce giant, which boasts a 13 percent pre-IPO stake, General Motors (7.76 percent), Fidelity (7.1 percent), Andreessen Horowitz (6.25 percent) and Alphabet (5.3 percent).

Founded in 2007, Lyft has raised $5.1 billion in venture capital funding to date.

This is an updating story.



Markets drop sharply as China implements new tariffs against U.S.

22:52 | 2 April

Who would have thought a potential trade war would cause investors to sell?

U.S. markets plunged today as China announced that it was implementing tariffs on $3 billion worth of American goods, mostly in agriculture and steel production. The Dow was down nearly 600 points today an hour before markets closed, and the NASDAQ was down about 210 points, or roughly 2.92%.

Investors are skittish that a festering trade skirmish will grow into a full on trade war. Even though these Chinese tariffs weren’t directed at high-tech goods, investors expect that any trade fight will ultimately hit the sector the hardest, since American exports to China are predominantly in areas like aircraft, machinery, and electronics. Tech stocks were almost universally down today except for a handful of smaller players.

China’s proposed tariffs are 15% on 120 categories of goods including dried apples, frozen strawberries, unshelled chestnuts, sparkling wine, and various types of stainless steel piping and casings. The Chinese are going to levy a higher 25% tariff on pork products and aluminum scrap coming from the United States. The tariffs were implemented today, and are retaliation to the Trump administration’s announcement that it would place tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. China has not yet responded with a retaliatory tariff for Trump’s tariff on $60 billion of electronic goods, which have not yet been brought into force.

Increasing tariffs is an unusual event in a world that has made free trade agreements a major force for diplomacy over the past three decades. China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, but market liberalization has lagged, and there are increasing constituencies in the United States and in other Western nations to reverse these trade agreements and cut a new deal.

Much as the United States is preparing a fusillade of techniques to slow down Chinese trade, the Chinese government is also attempting to use various powers to fight back. Qualcomm is still waiting for approval from China’s government for its acquisition of NXP Semiconductors, a massive deal at the heart of one of America’s most prominent technology leaders. China is also considering creating Chinese Depositary Receipts to mobilize local dollars and “buy back” local tech behemoths like Alibaba and Tencent, potentially creating a new trillion dollar local asset market.

On the American side, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer was quoted last week saying that a computer algorithm would try to select goods that maximize the harm to China’s trade, while minimizing the damage to American consumers. That’s gradient descent into trade oblivion.

It’s a multidimensional game, with both sides using tactics that would have been completely dismissed by policymakers just a year or two ago. Expect more gyrations in the markets in the coming weeks as we learn more about Trump’s proposed electronics tariffs, and the Chinese response to them.



Facebook shares drop 4.4 percent following Cambridge Analytica debacle

16:40 | 19 March

Facebook has been at the center of a hectic debate about Cambridge Analytica and the company’s improper use of Facebook data. As a result, Facebook shares (NASDAQ:FB) opened at $177.01, down 4.4 percent compared to Friday’s closing price of $185.09.

Share prices are still going down after the opening bell. NASDAQ as a whole is more or less flat — the stock market opened down 0.1 percent.

On Thursday, Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica from its platform. The political data analytics used Facebook data to help Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

The main issue is that the company developed an app called an app called “thisisyourdigitallife” to harvest user data. While many people thought they were downloading a fairly harmless personality quiz app, Cambridge Analytica was using Facebook’s API to gather data about the users of this app, but also the friends of the users.

While Facebook shut down the API that gave friends’ data to apps last year, it’s already too late. Developers have improperly used Facebook’s API to influence elections.

That’s why many people think regulation on tech companies is now inevitable, which could hurt Facebook’s bottom line.

Welp. Tech is definitely about to get regulated. And probably for the best.

— Aaron Levie (@levie)


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