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Main article: Payments

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Topics from 1 to 10 | in all: 328

Ever Loved’s funeral marketplace undercuts undertakers

18:05 | 12 February

Fifty percent of families are scared they can’t cover the cost of a funeral. They end up overpaying because no one wants to comparison shop amidst a tragedy. That’s why ex-Googler Alison Johnston’s startup Ever Loved built a free funeral crowdfunding tool. Now it’s addressing one of the most expensive parts of saying goodbye: burial. Today Ever Loved launches its online marketplace for caskets, urns, headstones and memorial jewelry.

By sidestepping the overhead of a physical funeral home, Ever Loved can offer better prices while still earning a 10% margin. Its caskets cost 50% less than the average sold at a mortuary, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

When I called a local San Francisco funeral home, the high markups came into focus. They quoted me $2,795 for a casket sold for $1,200 on Ever Loved.

“Most people don’t think to — or don’t want to — plan funerals in advance, which means that when someone passes away, the family is often scrambling,” Johnston tells me. “When this rush to make decisions is paired with extreme grief, many people don’t do anywhere close to the same amount of research as they would with another several-thousand-dollar purchase. When combined with the fact that most funeral homes don’t publish their prices online, it’s easy for families to spend much more than they need to.”

Johnston co-founded Ever Loved in late 2017 after a family member was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She discovered how few resources there were available for helping people plan and pay for funerals. She’d previously worked at Q&A app Aardvark through its acquisition by Google, then started online tutoring startup InstaEDU that eventually sold to Chegg. The consumer website building and e-commerce tools she’d grown used to weren’t available in the funeral industry, so she set out to build them. Ever Loved has raised seed funding from Social Capital and gone through Y Combinator.

Ever Loved co-founder and CEO Alison Johnston

“Tech too often merely makes life and work easier for those who already have it good,” she told me last year. “Tech that tempers tragedy is a welcome evolution for Silicon Valley.”

Ever Loved’s first focus was its funeral crowdfunding tool that let families ask the decedent’s loved ones to help contribute to offset the costs. Donors could leave a tip for Ever Loved, but otherwise it charged nothing beyond credit card processing fees. The tool was paired with a memorial website builder that families could use for distributing invites and collecting memories. Now Ever Loved is helping people plan thousands of funerals per month with revenue up nearly 20X year-over-year.

Now that it’s helping families raise money for remembrance services, Ever Loved wants to make sure they don’t get ripped off. The fact that there’s such low pricing transparency at funeral homes should clue you in that they try to pass off steep markups since customers might not have the energy to keep looking. “The average funeral home only helps with a funeral once every three days, meaning that many funeral homes need to charge high prices in order to cover their own fixed costs,” Johnston explains.

Remove the overhead costs and assist customers across geographies and there’s room for a strong business with more affordable prices. For example, a Stanford Blue Casket costs $990 on Ever Loved while one LA funeral home charges $1,600. The Last Supper Pieta Casket is $1,500 on Ever Loved but $6,580 from the funeral home. That funeral home had both of these listed under different names, further hindering the ability of customers to find a fair price.

Ever Loved can also more quickly adapt to the diversification of burial options. Between concerns about costs, land use, environmental impact and connection to family and nature, many are looking beyond caskets. Cremation became more popular than burial in the U.S. in 2017. Liquid cremation is now legal in 18 states, and Washington just began allowing body composting.

We’re seeing a lot of independent providers popping up to do everything from turning your loved one’s ashes into a diamond ring to shooting their ashes into space to planting them under a tree in the forest,” says Johnston. Any single funeral home is unlikely to offer the breadth customers are looking for. “Our goal is to make all of your options available to you in an easily digestible format.”

Ever Loved’s business is protected by the FTC’s Funeral Rule that bars mortuaries from refusing or charging extra to handle a casket or urn purchased elsewhere. That means Ever Loved customers can combine shopping online with in-person memorial services from a local funeral home. Still, it’s a tough business. Startups like HaloLife, Clarity and After I Go have all shut down. Most others merely offer memorial sites, or funeral home search engines.

That means Ever Loved’s biggest competitors, beyond the standard just accepting the local mortuary’s prices, are Google and Amazon. Often they surface the same prices as Ever Loved with comparable shipping, though Google could sometimes find a slight discount by buying straight from the manufacturer, while Amazon was missing some top brands. Costco and Walmart sell funeral products too. But Johnston says “many people don’t feel like generic, mass-market stores are the appropriate place to purchase funeral products.” I agree it might feel disrespectful buying an urn from the same place you get toilet paper.

We also put a huge focus on customer service, which you don’t get at Walmart, Costco or Amazon,” Johnston tells me. “When you’re grieving and spending thousands of dollars, we’ve found that this is very important.”

As the demographic planning funerals gets more tech-savvy over time and want personalized farewells rather than cookie-cutter conclusions, there’s a chance to change the status quo. Discussing death is becoming less taboo. Being smart about paying for it should too.

 


0

Venmo woos retailers with branded, animated stickers for its newsfeed

17:46 | 21 January

Venmo’s newsfeed is about to get more interesting. Historically, the PayPal-owned app’s users would comment on their transactions using text, or as is more common, emoji. But now the company is planning to add support for custom, animated stickers, as well.

These animations were designed in partnership with Holler so they’re unique to the Venmo app and tailored to the sorts of transactions that take place there. For example, one is of a hoagie sandwich broken in half with text that reads “split the bill.” Another features a spinning pizza. One includes two characters pushing an IKEA shopping cart. And so on.

IKEA isn’t the only brand to be included in the new stickers, as it turns out — Subway and others are also participating, Venmo says. (Keurig was initially listed as a sticker partner, then pulled out at the last minute. Other news sites have still included the brand’s mention, but to be clear — it isn’t launching now.)

The move to introduce stickers — and particularly those featuring select retailers — comes at a time when Venmo is looking for ways to establish itself as a payment method of choice at brick-and-mortar stores. On that front, the company this past fall launched a rewards program tied to its physical Venmo card to offer users 5% back at stores like Target, Sephora, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Wendy’s, among others.

Though Venmo parent company PayPal had already tried to establish itself as an optional at checkout through point-of-sale integrations in years past, it never really took off. In more recent months, PayPal instead chose to partner instead of competing with payment rivals like Apple, Google, Visa, Mastercard, and others. Venmo, however, still has a shot at becoming at establishing a foothold in the physical retail space, thanks to its Venmo account-linked card and its forthcoming credit card.

In addition, its service is favored by millennial and Gen Z shoppers who often opt for non-traditional cards and banking products, like mobile banking apps and cards that also function as status symbol cards, like the new  Apple Card. Plus, they prefer visual communication when it comes to sharing what they’re spending — over 90% of Venmo transactions include emojis, the company notes.

Venmo says the new stickers in the app will help the retailers to better connect with Venmo users and could allow for tailored experiences, going forward. But not all the stickers are branded — some are just happy tacos or burritos, jars and mugs filled with pennies, and other generic images.

The stickers are rolling out, starting today, says Venmo.

 


0

Marijuana delivery giant Eaze may go up in smoke

00:07 | 17 January

The first cannabis startup to raise big money in Silicon Valley is in danger of burning out. TechCrunch has learned that pot delivery middleman Eaze has seen unannounced layoffs, and its depleted cash reserves threaten its ability to make payroll or settle its AWS bill. Eaze was forced to raise a bridge round to keep the lights on as it prepares to attempt major pivot to ‘touching the plant’ by selling its own marijuana brands through its own depots.

If Eaze fails, it could highlight serious growing pains amid the ‘green rush’ of startups into the marijuana business.

Eaze, the startup backed by some $166 million in funding that once positioned itself as the “Uber of pot” — a marketplace selling pot and other cannabis products from dispensaries and delivering it to customers — has recently closed a $15 million bridge round, according to multiple source. The fund was meant to keep the lights on as Eaze struggles to raise its next round of funding amid problems with making decent margins on its current business model, lawsuits, payment processing issues, and internal disorganization.

 

An Eaze spokesperson confirmed that the company is low on cash. Sources tell us that the company, which laid off some 30 people last summer, is preparing another round of cuts in the meantime. The spokesperson refused to discuss personnel issues but noted that there have been layoffs at many late stage startups as investors want to see companies cut costs and become more efficient.

From what we understand, Eaze is currently trying to raise a $35 million Series D round according to its pitch deck. The $15 million bridge round came from unnamed current investors. (Previous backers of the company include 500 Startups, DCM Ventures, Slow Ventures, Great Oaks, FJ Labs, the Winklevoss brothers, and a number of others.) Originally, Eaze had tried to raise a $50 million Series D, but the investor that was looking at the deal, Athos Capital, is said to have walked away at the eleventh hour.

Eaze is going into the fundraising with an enterprise value of $388 million, according to company documents reviewed by TechCrunch. It’s not clear what valuation it’s aiming for in the next round.

An Eaze spokesperson declined to discuss fundraising efforts but told TechCrunch, “The company is going through a very important transition right now, moving to becoming a plant-touching company through acquisitions of former retail partners that will hopefully allow us to more efficiently run the business and continue to provide good service to customers.

Desperate to grow margins

The news comes as Eaze is hoping to pull off a “verticalization” pivot, moving beyond online storefront and delivery of third-party products (rolled joints, flower, vaping products and edibles) and into sourcing, branding and dispensing the product directly. Instead of just moving other company’s marijuana brands between third-party dispensaries and customers, it wants to sell its own in-house brands through its own delivery depots to earn a higher margin. With a number of other cannabis companies struggling, the hope is that it will be able to acquire brands in areas like marijuana flower, pre-rolled joints, vaporizer cartridges, or edibles at low prices.

An Eaze spokesperson confirmed that the company plans to announce the pivot in the coming days, telling TechCrunch that it’s “a pretty significant change from provider of services to operating in that fashion but also operating a depot directly ourselves.”

The startup is already making moves in this direction, and is in the process of acquiring some of the assets of a bankrupt cannabis business out of Canada called Dionymed — which had initially been a partner of Eaze’s, then became a competitor, and then sued it over payment disputes, before finally selling part of its business. These assets are said to include Oakland dispensary Hometown Heart, which it acquired in an all-share transaction (“Eaze effectively bought the lawsuit,” is how one source described the sale). This will become Eaze’s first owned delivery depot.

In a recent presentation deck that Eaze has been using when pitching to investors — which has been obtained by TechCrunch — the company describes itself as the largest direct-to-consumer cannabis retailer in California. It has completed more than 5 million deliveries, served 600,000 customers and tallied up an average transaction value of $85. 

To date, Eaze has only expanded to one other state beyond California, Oregon. Its aim is to add five more states this year, and another three in 2021. But the company appears to have expected more states to legalize recreational marijuana sooner, which would have provided geographic expansion. Eaze seems to have overextended itself too early in hopes of capturing market share as soon as it became available.

An employee at the company tells us that on a good day Eaze can bring in between $800,000 and $1 million in net revenue, which sounds great, except that this is total merchandise value, before any cuts to suppliers and others are made. Eaze makes only a fraction of that amount, one reason why it’s now looking to verticatlize into more of a primary role in the ecosystem. And that’s before considering all of the costs associated with running the business. 

Eaze is suffering from a problem rampant in the marijuana industry: a lack of working capital. Since banks often won’t issue working capital loans to weed-related business, deliverers like Eaze can experience delays in paying back vendors. A source says late payments have pushed some brands to stop selling through Eaze.

Another drain on its finances have been its marketing efforts. A source said out-of-home ads (billboards and the like) allegedly were a significant expense at one point. It has to compete with other pot purchasing options like visiting retail stores in person, using dispensaries’ in-house delivery services, or buying via startups like Meadow that act as aggregated online points of sale for multiple dispensaries.

Indeed, Eaze claims that its pivot into verticalization will bring it $204 million in revenues on gross transactions of $300 million. It notes in the presentation that it makes $9.04 on an average sale of $85, which will go up to $18.31 if it successfully brings in ‘private label’ products and has more depot control.

Selling weed isn’t eazy

The poor margins are only one of the problems with Eaze’s current business model, which the company admits in its presentation have led to an inconsistent customer experience and poor customer affinity with its brand — especially in the face of competition from a number of other delivery businesses.  

Playing on the on-demand, delivery-of-everything theme, it connected with two customer bases. First, existing cannabis consumers already using some form of delivery service for their supply; and a newer, more mainstream audience with disposable income that had become more interested in cannabis-related products but might feel less comfortable walking into a dispensary, or buying from a black market dealer.

It is not the only startup that has been chasing that audience. Other competitors in the wider market for cannabis discovery, distribution and sales include Weedmaps, Puffy, Blackbird, Chill (a brand from Dionymed that it founded after ending its earlier relationship with Eaze), and Meadow, with the wider industry estimated to be worth some $11.9 billion in 2018 and projected to grow to $63 billion by 2025.

Eaze was founded on the premise that the gradual decriminalisation of pot — first making it legal to buy for medicinal use, and gradually for recreational use — would spread across the US and make the consumption of cannabis-related products much more ubiquitous, presenting a big opportunity for Eaze and other startups like it. 

It found a willing audience among consumers, but also tech workers in the Bay Area, a tight market for recruitment. 

“I was excited for the opportunity to join the cannabis industry,” one source said. “It has for the most part has gotten a bad rap, and I saw Eaze’s mission as a noble thing, and the team seemed like good people.”

Eaze CEO Ro Choy

That impression was not to last. The company, this employee was told when joining, had plenty of funding with more on the way. The newer funding never materialised, and as Eaze sought to figure out the best way forward, the company cycled through different ideas and leadership: former Yammer executive Keith McCarty, who cofounded the company with Roie Edery (both are now founders at another Cannabis startup, Wayv), left, and the CEO role was given to another ex-Yammer executive, Jim Patterson, who was then replaced by Ro Choy, who is the current CEO. 

“I personally lost trust in the ability to execute on some of the vision once I got there,” the ex-employee said. “I thought that on one hand a picture was painted that wasn’t the truth. As we got closer and as I’d been there longer and we had issues with funding, the story around why we were having issues kept changing.” Several sources familiar with its business performance and culture referred to Eaze as a “shitshow”.

No ‘Push For Kush’

The quick shifts in strategy were a recurring pattern that started well before the company got tight financial straits. 

One employee recalled an acquisition Eaze made several years ago of a startup called Push for Pizza. Founded by five young friends in Brooklyn, Push for Pizza had gone viral over a simple concept: you set up your favourite pizza order in the app, and when you want it, you pushed a single button to order it. (Does that sound silly? Don’t forget, this was also the era of Yo, which was either a low point for innovation, or a high point for cynicism when it came to average consumer intelligence… maybe both.)

Eaze’s idea, the employee said, was to take the basics of Push for Pizza and turn it into a weed app, Push for Kush. In it, customers could craft their favourite mix and, at the touch of a button, order it, lowering the procurement barrier even more.

The company was very excited about the deal and the prospect of the new app. They planned a big campaign to spread the word, and held an internal event to excite staff about the new app and business line. 

“They had even made a movie of some kind that they showed us, featuring a caricature of Jim” — the CEO at a the time — “hanging out of the sunroof of a limo.” (I’ve been able to find the opening segment of this video online, and the Twitter and Instagram accounts that had been created for Push for Kush, but no more than that.)

Then just one week later, the whole plan was scrapped, and the founders of Push for Pizza fired. “It was just brushed under the carpet,” the former employee said. “No one could get anything out of management about what had happened.”

Something had happened, though: the company had been taking payments by card when it made the acquisition, but the process was never stable and by then it had recently gone back to the cash-only model. Push for Kush by cash was less appealing. “They didn’t think it would work,” the person said, adding that this was the normal course of business at the startup. “Big initiatives would just die in favor of pushing out whatever new thing was on the product team’s radar.” 

Eaze’s spokesperson confirmed that “we did acquire Push For Pizza . . but ultimately didn’t choose to pursue [launching Push For Kush].”

Payments were a recurring issue for the startup. Eaze started out taking payments only in cash — but as the business grew, that became increasingly problematic. The company found itself kicked off the credit card networks and was stuck with a less traceable, more open to error (and theft) cash-only model at a time when one employee estimated it was bringing in between $800,000 and $1 million per day in sales. 

Eventually, it moved to cards, but not smoothly: Visa specifically did not want Eaze on its platform. Eaze found a workaround, employees say, but it was never above board, which became the subject of the lawsuit between Eaze and Dionymed. Currently the company appear to only take payments via debit cards, ACH transfer, and cash, not credit card.

Another incident sheds light on how the company viewed and handled security issues. 

Can Eaze rise from the ashes?

At one point, employees allegedly discovered that Eaze was essentially storing all of its customer data — including users’ signatures and other personal information — in an Azure bucket that was not secured, meaning that if anyone was nosing around, it could be easily discovered and exploited.

The vulnerability was brought to the company’s attention. It was something that was up to product to fix, but the job was pushed down the list. It ultimately took seven months to patch this up. “I just kept seeing things with all these huge holes in them, just not ready for prime time,” one ex-employee said of the state of products. “No one was listening to engineers, and no one seemed to be looking for viable products.” Eaze’s spokesperson confirms a vulnerability was discovered but claims it was promptly resolved.

Today, the issue is a more pressing financial one: the company is running out of money. Employees have been told the company may not make its next payroll, and AWS will shut down its servers in two days if it doesn’t pay up. 

Eaze’s spokesperson tried to remain optimistic while admitting the dire situation the company faces. “Eaze is going to continue doing everything we can to support customers and the overall legal cannabis industry. We’re excited about the future and acknowledge the challenges that the entire community is facing.”

As medicinal and recreational marijuana access became legal in some states in the latter 2010s, entrepreneurs and investors flocked to the market. They saw an opportunity to capitalize on the end of a major prohibition — a once in a lifetime event. But high government taxes, enduring black markets, intense competition, and a lack of financial infrastructure willing to deal with any legal haziness have caused major setbacks.

While the pot business might sound chill, operations like Eaze depend on coordinating high-stress logistics with thin margins and little room for error. Plenty of food delivery startups from Sprig to Munchery went under after running into similar struggles, and at least banks and payment processors would work with them. With the odds stacked against it, Eaze has a tough road ahead.

 


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2019 saw a stampede of fintech unicorns

21:10 | 9 January

Dana Stalder Contributor
Dana Stalder is a partner at Matrix Partners, where he invests predominantly in fintech, consumer marketplaces and enterprise software.
Jake Jolis Contributor
Jake Jolis is a partner at Matrix Partners and invests in seed and Series A technology companies including marketplaces and software.

Two years ago, we created the Matrix FinTech Index to highlight what we saw as the beginnings of a 10+ year mega innovation wave in financial services.

The trillion-dollar financial services industry was going to be turned on its head over the next decade, and we were just getting started. At the time, the top 10 publicly traded U.S. fintech companies had just surpassed the $100 billion mark in terms of total market capitalization, 12 unicorns had emerged in the category, and the U.S. VC industry had just poured in $6.7B — a record at the time.

As we predicted last year, the innovation cycle continues, and we are transitioning into its mid-phase. So what happened in U.S. fintech in 2019? In short, monster growth.

On the public side, fintechs delivered resoundingly. PayPal alone gained $26B in market capitalization. On a return basis, the public Matrix FinTech Index continued to crush every major equity index as well as the financial services incumbents. Nicely matching our forecasts, our Index delivered 213% returns over the last three years. The Index outperformed the financial services incumbents by 151 percentage points and the S&P 500 by 170 percentage points.

 


0

Paytm targets merchants to fight back Google and Walmart in India’s crowded payments field

22:35 | 8 January

Paytm today announced two new features for businesses as the financial services firm looks to expand its reach in the nation that has quickly become one of the world’s most crowded and competitive payments markets.

The Noida-headquartered firm, which raised $1 billion in late November, said its app for businesses now features an “all-in-one” QR code system to accept payments from multiple platforms, including mobile wallets (that act as an intermediary between a user and their bank but provide convenience) and those that are powered by UPI, a payments infrastructure built by a coalition of banks that has been widely adopted by the industry players.

Merchants had expressed an interest in having one QR code that could understand any payments app, said Vijay Shekhar Sharma, the founder and chief executive of Paytm’s parent firm One97 Communications. In addition to supporting mobile wallet apps, and UPI-powered payment apps, Paytm’s new QR codes also support payments through popular Rupay cards.

Merchants can also stick these QR codes on devices such as battery packs and chargers to enable quick transaction from users, Sharma explained at a press conference today.

Bookkeeping for merchants and small businesses

The nation’s highest-valued startup (at around $16 billion) also announced a bookkeeping feature for businesses to help them maintain their daily records.

Dubbed Paytm Business Khata, the feature will help merchants manage payments, record transactions and secure loans and insurance. The service will also enable them to set a reminder for credit transactions, get an audio alert when they have received new payment, and send links to their customers to easily pay their dues, said Sharma.

Hundreds of millions of Indians, many in small towns and villages, came online for the first time in the last decade thanks to the proliferation of cheap Android smartphones and the availability of some of the world’s cheapest mobile data plans.

In recent years, millions of merchants and small businesses have also started to accept digital payments and listed them on the web for the first time. But most of them are still offline. Scores of startups and heavily backed firms such as Google, Walmart and Amazon are chasing this untapped market.

Google, which has amassed more than 67 million users on its payments app in India, last year announced a range of offerings to allow businesses to easily start accepting payments online. In the past, the company also launched tools to help mom and pop stores build presence on the web.

A number of startups today, including Bangalore-based Instamojo, Khatabook (which raised $25 million in October last year and counts GGV Capital, Sequoia Capital India and Tencent among its investors) and Lightspeed-backed OkCredit, which raised $67 million in August last year, offer bookkeeping features and allow their consumers to enable easier payment options.

Google Pay or GPay sticker pasted on the glass of a car in New Delhi India on 18 September 2019 (Photo by Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Paytm’s Sharma claimed that his business app has already amassed more than 10 million merchant users, a number he expects to more than double by next year.

The announcements today illustrate how aggressively Paytm, which once led the mobile payments market in India, is expanding its service. Some critics have cautioned that the firm, which counts SoftBank, Alibaba and T. Rowe Price among its key investors and has raised over $3.3 billion to date, is quickly losing its market share and chasing opportunities that could significantly increase its expenses and losses. According to several industry estimates, Google Pay and Walmart’s PhonePe now lead the mobile payments market in India.

Paytm lost more than half a billion dollars in the financial year that ended in March 2019. The trouble for the company is that there is currently little money to be made in the payments market because of some of the local guidelines set by the government.

“The current Paytm’s potential is a pale shadow of its former self. And to stay relevant, the company is entering new businesses (and failing spectacularly in some) at a pace that shows both a lack of clarity and urgency. Paytm is stuck between a glorious past that was built on the back of digital payments and a future that doesn’t look anything like Jack Ma’s Alibaba, one of Paytm’s largest investors and Sharma’s inspiration,” wrote Ashish Mishra, a long-time journalist, in a scathing post (paywalled).

Sharma said today that the company plans to offer services such as stock brokerage and insurance brokerage in the coming months. At stake is India’s payments market that is estimated to be worth $1 trillion in the next four years, up from about $200 billion currently, according to Credit Suisse. And that market is only going to get more crowded when WhatsApp, which has amassed over 400 million users in India, rolls out its payments service to all its users in the country in the coming months.

 


0

Fintech’s next decade will look radically different

19:30 | 22 December

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.

https://techcrunch.com/2019/12/22/who-will-the-winners-be-in...

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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Snackpass snags $21M to let you earn friends free takeout

17:58 | 19 December

“We were in the back washing blenders so they could keep taking Snackpass orders” recalls co-founder and CEO Kevin Tan. The team from order-ahead food startup Snackpass was willing to get their hands dirty to keep up with demand at one of their first restaurant partners, Tropical Smoothie Cafe on the Yale college campus.

Why were people so eager to pay for takeout through Snackpass? Because it lets them earn loyalty points to redeem for free food — both for themselves and as gifts for their friends. Sending people Snackpass rewards became a new way to flirt or show gratitude at Yale. And through the Venmo-esque Snackpass social feed, users could keep up with a fresh form of gossip while discovering restaurants.

“Anywhere someone is standing in line to order something, we can solve that with Snackpass” says Tan. “Consumer spending will be social in the future.”

That future is already taking hold. Two years after launch, Snackpass is on 11 college campuses across the US, often boasting a 75% penetration rate amongst students within 6 months. It takes a cut of every order and keeps margins high since users pick up the food themselves rather than waiting for delivery. While other food ordering startups battle to offer discounts as marauding users deal-hop between apps, Snackpass keeps users coming back through its loyalty program.

Its momentum, retention, and opportunity to expand from colleges to dense cities has now won Snackpass a $21 million Series A led by Andreessen Horowitz partner Andrew Chen. The round was joined by other heavy hitters like Y Combinator, General Catalyst, Inspired Capital, and First Round plus angels including musician Nas, NFL star Larry Fitzgerald, and legendary talent agent Michael Ovitz. Building on Snackpass’ $2.7 million seed, the cash will go towards hiring up with the goal of reaching 100 campuses in 2 years.

“Takeout is an important market because it’s huge — also in the hundreds of billions — and fragmented” writes Chen. “The opportunity complements the food delivery market in a big way: For the average restaurant, there are 6 takeout orders for every delivery order!”

“It’s Own Language”

Like many of the best startup ideas, Snackpass was born out of the founders’ own needs at Yale. Slow and expensive food delivery services didn’t make sense for smaller orders like a coffee, ice cream, or a pepperoni slice on campuses small enough for customers to walk or bike to the restaurant. Tan says “I was dabbling in several side projects, including helping a friend who managed a local pizza shop build a website to help better reach the local student community.” He realized how tough it was for restaurants around colleges to retain and reward customers, especially as regulars graduated.

Tan joined up with neuroscience student and Thiel Fellow Jamie Marshall, who became Snackpass’ COO. “I had grown up calling in every order” Marshall tells me. “Waiting in line didn’t make sense for me. I used every order-ahead platform and thought this was the future.” Jonathan Cameron, a serial entrepreneur who’d built his own order-ahead app called Happy Hour, rounded out the founding team.

Snackpass founders (from left): Jamie Marshall and Kevin Tan

Snackpass offers users a list of nearby restaurants they can order ahead from, with special tags for ones offering deals. Menu items include counts of how many people have ordered them and how many rewards points you’ll earn buying them. You pay in the app, skip the line at the restaurant, and grab your order from the counter. Each restaurant can configure their own rewards system with how much items earn and cost, such as giving you a free coffee for every 10 you buy.

Users can then spend their points to get themselves free menu items, or send a virtual Snackpass gift card to any of their phone contacts or people they find via search. This gives Snackpass a way to grow virally that most food apps lack. Thankfully, you can block people on Snackpass if they get creepy showering you with gifts.

Each purchase and gift on Snackpass shows up in its social feed unless you make it private. “That’s become its own language. People use it to flirt with each other, or bond and connect with someone new” Tan tells me. “There’s some drama or intrigue there seeing who’s sending gifts to who. People even look at the feed in the way they look at someone’s Instagram to see what’s going on with them.”

Snackpass has also done some integration work specifically for the college market that sets it apart from other order-ahead and delivery services. It can sync with students’ campus meal plans so they can spend them through the app. And student groups from clubs to fraternities can pre-load and replenish accounts for their members. Snackpass works with the same organizations to launch on new campuses. “We host parties, sponsor tailgates, and make it feel like a student-led effort so it grows organically across campus communities” Tan explains. “These efforts, combined with the social feed which would give anyone FOMO if they’re not in the app.”

Network Effect Commerce

With all the competition in the space, restaurants can be inundated with apps to manage, some of which just exacerbate spikes in demand that overwhelm kitchens. “There is certainly a risk that local restaurants will start to get platform fatigue, finding that using some apps will take too big of a bite out of their margins” says Tan. That’s why Snackpass built features that let restaurants batch orders and control how many come in at a certain time so dine-in patients and non-app users aren’t stuck with unreasonable delays.

Snackpass has recruited talent from Uber Eats and an advisor from Yelp’s executive team to help it navigate the tricky SMB sales process. One ace up its sleeve is that it can offer to send push notifications to announce recently signed partners or specials they’re launching, driving the new customers restaurants are desperate for. Tan says his startup is considering if it could charge for this kind of promotion down the line. Most customers who walk into restaurants are effectively in incognito mode, but Snackpass provides its partners with analytics to help them improve their own businesses.

“At the surface level there is a lot of competition in this space” Tan admits. “The social aspect of the app has been the key differentiator for us. Other companies have been focused on creating the fastest, cheapest, most efficient delivery service, but it’s really hard to make those margins work and consumers are trained to shop around on different apps to get
the best deal or fastest delivery time . . . Eating food is supposed to be fun and social,
and our generation grew up online and in social networks. We’re combining the social aspect of eating with the utility of order ahead, which has helped us build loyalty and enable retention
amongst our users.”

It will still be a battle to overtake long-running competitors like Allset, Level Up, and Ritual, plus incumbents that offer takeout pickup like Uber and Grubhub. Logistics is a cut-throat business, and plenty of startups have already failed in the restaurant loyalty space.

Having Andreessen Horowitz’s support could give Snackpass some extra fire power. “A16z has better support and services for their portfolio companies than any other VC we’ve come across and they’ve delivered” Tan tells me. “We knew that Andrew Chen understands growth and marketplaces from his blog and his Twitter.” That’s critical in a crowded space where such a precise balance of customer acquisition and lifetime value is necessary.

Snapchat, TikTok, and Fortnite have all tapped into the youth market with a lighthearted nature that keeps users coming back until they develop network effect. Snackpass is managing to do the same not with a messaging app or game, but a commerce platform. “We play up creativity, silliness and delight in areas where most companies focus on utility and convenience” Tan concludes. “We built Snackpass for ourselves and our friends. We’ve carried on this philosophy: if something makes us laugh, we put it in the app.”

 


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Robinhood lets you invest as little as 1 cent in any stock

18:00 | 12 December

One share of Amazon stock costs over $1700, locking out less wealthy investors. So to continue its quest to democratize stock trading, Robinhood is launching fractional share trading this week. This lets you buy 0.000001 shares, rounded to the nearest penny, or just $1 of any stock with zero fee.

The ability to buy by millionth of a share lets Robinhood undercut Square Cash’s recently announced fractional share trading, which sets a $1 minimum for investment. Robinhood users can sign up here for early access to fractional share trading.

As incumbent brokerages like Charles Schwab and E*Trade move to copy Robinhood’s free stock trading, the startup has to stay ahead in inclusive financial tools. Fractional share trading ensures no one need be turned away, and Robinhood can keep growing its user base of 10 million with its war chest of $910 million in funding.

Robinhood has a bunch of other new features aimed at diversifying its offering for the not-yet-rich. Today its Cash Management feature it announced in October is rolling out to its first users on 800,000 person wait list, offering them 1.8% APY interest on cash in their Robinhood balance plus a Mastercard debit card for spending money or pulling it out of a wide network of ATMs. The feature is effectively a scaled-back relaunch of the botched debut of 3% APY Robinhood Checking a year ago which was scuttled since the startup failed to secure the proper insurance it now has for Cash Management.

Additionally, Robinhood is launching two more widely requested features early next year. Dividend Reinvestment Plan (DRIIP) will automatically reinvest cash dividends Robinhood users receive into stocks or ETFS. Recurring Investments will let users schedule daily, weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly investments into stocks. With all this, Crypto trading, and  Robinhood is evolving into a full financial services suite that will be much harder for competitors to copy.

Robinhood Debit Card

How Robinhood Fractional Shares Work

“We believe that if you want to invest, it shouldn’t matter how much money you have. With fractional shares, we’re opening up a whole universe of stocks and funds including Amazon, Apple, Disney, Berkshire Hathaway, and thousands of others” Robinhood product manager Abhishek Fatehpuria tells me.

Users will be able to place real-time fractional share orders in dollar amounts as low as $1 or share amounts as low as 0.000001 shares rounded to the penny during market hours. Stocks worth over $1 per share with a market capitalization above $25 million are eligible, with 4000 different stocks and ETFs available for commission-free, real-time fractional trading.

“We believe that participation is power. Since day one, we’ve focused on breaking down barriers like trade commissions and account minimums to help people participate in the financial system” says Fatehpuria. “We have a unique user base — half our customers tell us they’re first time investors, and the median age of a Robinhood customer is 30. This means we have a unique opportunity to expand access to the markets for this new generation.”

Robinhood is racing to corner the freemium investment tool market before other startups and finance giants can catch up. It opened a waitlist for its UK launch next year which will be its first international market. But in just the past month, Alpaca raised $6 million for an API that lets anyone build a stock brokerage app, and Atom Finance raised $10.6 million for its free investment research tool that could compete with Robinhood’s in-app feature. Meanwhile, Robinhood suffered an embarrassing bug letting users borrow more money than allowed.

The move fast and break things mentality triggers new dangers when introduced to finance. Robinhood must resist the urge to rush as it spreads itself across more products in pursuit of a leveler investment playing field.

 


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PayPal’s exiting COO Bill Ready to join Google as its new president of Commerce

19:15 | 11 December

In June, PayPal announced its Chief Operating Officer Bill Ready would be departing the company at the end of this year. Now we know where he’s ending up: Google. Ready will join Google in January as the company’s new commerce chief, reporting directly to Prabhakar Raghavan, SVP, Ads, Commerce and Payments.

Ready’s role at Google will not involve payments, which means he won’t be directly involved with PayPal’s competitor, Google Pay. Instead, as Google’s new president of Commerce, Ready will focus on leading Google’s vision, strategy and delivery of its commerce products. However, the role will see Ready working in close partnership with both the advertising and payments operations.

Google’s prior head of ads, commerce and payments, Sridhar Ramaswamy, left the company in 2018 after more than 15 years, which is when Raghavan stepped in. But Ready’s role is a new one, as it will focus on commerce specifically.

“Bill’s exceptional track record building great experiences for consumers and deeply strategic partnerships makes him a powerful addition to our team. I couldn’t be more excited for the future of commerce at Google,” said Raghavan, in a statement.

Added Ready, “I’ve long admired how Google has enabled access to the digital economy for everyone. Google has been making world-class commerce capabilities universally accessible to partners of all sizes, and I look forward to furthering that mission,” he said.

Ready joined PayPal in 2013 when it acquired his startup, the payments gateway Braintree, for $800 million (he became CEO of Braintree and Venmo). Today, Braintree powers payments for businesses like Uber, Airbnb, Facebook and Jet.com, while Venmo sees more than $25 billion in transaction volume on a quarterly basis.

Once at PayPal, Ready moved up the ranks to become EVP and COO in 2016. In this role, he was responsible for product, technology and engineering at PayPal, as well as the end-to-end customer experiences for PayPal’s consumer, merchant, Braintree, Venmo, Paydiant and Xoom businesses. He was also co-chair of PayPal’s Operating Group, which focuses on delivering on revenue and profit goals for the company.

At PayPal, Ready was behind a number of the company’s biggest moves, including the introduction of its most-rapidly adopted product ever, PayPal One Touch, as well as Pay with Venmo, the redesign of the PayPal mobile app, PayPal Commerce and the expansion of Braintree’s global reach.

PayPal announced Ready’s plans for departure this summer, saying he was planning to engage in other entrepreneurial interests outside the company.

Heading up commerce at Google will be a big task for Ready, given commerce’s close proximity to parent company Alphabet’s main source of revenue, which is advertising. In Q3 2019, Google’s ad revenue was $33.92 billion out of total revenue of $40.5 billion.

Today, many consumers visit Google first to shop for products, which allows it to charge top dollar for its ads. But over the years, Amazon has been steadily chipping away at Google’s lead as more consumers go directly to its site to hunt for products.

To address this challenge, Google has begun to transform its Shopping business.

At Google Marketing Live this year, Google unveiled a new look and feel for its shopping properties, which included rebranding its Google Express app as the new Google Shopping app. The goal with the changes is to better serve the way consumers now shop online. Today, people often start “shopping” by doing things like browsing Pinterest for inspiration or seeing what influencers are posting on Instagram, for example. Instagram capitalized on this trend with the launch of Instagram Shopping in March, which allows users to checkout right in its app.

PayPal is also now moving in this direction. The company recently made its largest-ever acquisition with a $4 billion deal for shopping and awards platform Honey. With Honey’s integrations, PayPal will be able to target shoppers with personalized promotions and offers earlier on in their shopping journey, then direct them to PayPal’s checkout as the final step.

Google’s commerce plans are similar in that regard.

It envisions a universal cart and new ways to shop across its platform of services, including Search, Shopping, Images, and even YouTube and Gmail. This will allow Google to also capture shoppers’ attention as they engage with Google properties — like browsing images for product ideas or watching YouTube videos, for example.

As a part of the Google Shopping revamp, the dedicated Shopping homepage was updated to allow consumers to filter products by brands they love, features they want, as well as read product reviews and videos. Shoppers could add items to a universal cart where purchases were backed by a Google guarantee, as well as receive customer service and make easy returns, as before with Google Express.

Google’s travel business also falls under commerce, and similarly received new attention this year with updates designed to simplify the experience of trip planning on google.com/travel, and more features around tracking flight price drops and predictions. 

On the advertising side, Google’s highly visual Showcase Shopping ads were expanded outside of Google Shopping. And Shopping Actions — customers’ ability to shop directly from Google surfaces, like Google Assistant — are making their way to new services, like YouTube.

Google is also ramping up its ability to serve smaller and local businesses with features aimed at driving in-store pickup traffic to brick-and-mortar stores.

Critical to making Google’s new Shopping platform successful is being able to forge retail partnerships — as, unlike Amazon, Google itself is not really in the business of selling directly to consumers, outside of its own hardware devices.

Ready’s experience will prove valuable here, too. At PayPal, he was able to build strategic partnerships with a number of unlikely players — including Visa, Mastercard, Apple, Walmart, Samsung, and even Google.

What Ready’s strategy and vision will more precisely entail for Google will have to wait until after he’s on board, however.

“I’m thrilled to welcome Bill to Google as we continue our work to create more helpful commerce experiences and build a thriving ecosystem for partners of all sizes,” said Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet.

Image Credits: Getty Images — Bloomberg/Contributor; Ready: Google

 


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Airbnb invests as Zeus corporate housing raises $55M at $205M

19:35 | 9 December

As Airbnb absorbs more and more of the demand for housing, it’s exploring how to monetize opportunities beyond vacation rentals. A marketplace for longer term corporate housing could be a huge business, but rather than build that itself, Airbnb is making a strategic investment in one of the market leaders called Zeus Living and will list its homes on the Airbnb site.

In just four years of redecorating landlords’ homes and renting them for 30+ day stays to relocated workers, Zeus Living has grown to a $100 million revenue run rate. It boosted revenue 300% in 2019, and now has 250 employees and over 2000 homes under management. Zeus make money by charging landlords one free month of usage, and marking up the rent charged to customers. It could rent out a $4,000 per month home for $5,000 plus take the extra month to earn $16,000 in a year.

Zeus CEO and co-founder Kulveer Taggar tells me “I fundamentally believe that a lot of human potential is bound by location. At Zeus, we’re deeply committed to making it easier for people to live where opportunity takes them.” It’s already hosted 27,000 residents for a total of 650,000 nights.

Strong margins, swift momentum, and that megatrend of more mobile workforces have earned Zeus Living a new $55 million Series B round it’s announcing on TechCrunch today. The funding comes from Airbnb, Comcast, CEAS Investments, and TI Platform Management, plus existing investors Alumni Ventures Group, Initialized Capital, NFX, and Spike Ventures. The funding comes at a $205 million post-money valuation.

“The opportunity here is huge, consumer spend is going toward housing and everyone needs to stay somewhere. But it’s Kulveer and Zeus’ go-to-market strategy that is impressive” says Initialized co-founder and managing partner Garry Tan. “Zeus decided to start with corporate rentals, which we believe is the best go-to-market since it is the highest margin, and capital efficiency wins in a space with many competitors. Corporate needs are longer term, consistent and predictable, and partnering with Airbnb strengthens this approach as they expand to build a platform for every city.”

Zeus co-founder and CEO Kulveer Taggar

Zeus had previously raised a $2.5 million seed and then an $11.5 million Series A led by Initialized, as well as $10 million in debt to cover taking on properties in the San Francisco Bay, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and D.C. Now that it’s scaling up, Zeus could add a sizable debt facility to cover the risk of filling apartments with employees from clients like Brex, Disney, ServiceTitan, and Samsara.

Push-Button Housing

Instead of moving into a bland corporate housing block, struggling to find a place themselves, or ending up in expensive long-term Airbnbs, workers moving to new cities can go to Zeus. It takes over apartments, handles maintenance, and fills them with branded comforts like Parachute bedding and Helix mattresses that Zeus gets at bulk rates. The startup is betting that as workers move between jobs and cities more frequently, fewer will own furniture and instead look for furnished homes like those Zeus offers.

Thanks to the premium stays it provides, Zeus charge can clients a lucrative rate while Taggar claims his service is still about half the price of standard corporate housing. For property owners, Zeus makes it easy to get a consistent rent paycheck with none of the traditional landlord work. Zeus takes care of cleaning and key exchanges so owners don’t need to do any chores like if they were running an Airbnb. Its goal is to get the first renters in within 10 days of taking on a property.

The new funding will help Zeus expand to more neighborhoods and cities while retaining a focus on breadth within each market so clients have plenty of homes to pick from. The startup will be revamping its booking and invoicing tools for enterprise partners, and improving how it sources real estate. Meanwhile it will be investing in customer care to maintain its high 70s NPS scores so relocated workers brag to their colleagues about how nice their new place is.

“Finding housing is stressful and time-consuming for both individuals and employers. As someone who has moved countries four times, I’ve lived through that tension” says Taggar. Zeus Living has built technology to remove complexity from housing, turning it into a service that enables a more mobile world.”

Taggar had gotten into the real estate business early, remortgaging his mom’s house to buy a condo in Mumbai to rent out. After moving to the US, he built and sold Y Combinator-backed auction tool Auctomatic with co-founder and future Stripe starter Patrick Collison. It was while working on NFC-triggered task launcher Tagstand that Taggar recognized the hassle of both finding new corporate housing and reliably renting out one’s home. With Uber, Stripe, and more startups growing huge by simplifying processes that move a lot of money around, he was inspired to do the same with Zeus Living.

The PropertyTech Wars

“Modern professionals travel more frequently, stay longer, and seek accommodations that feel like home. As more companies look to Airbnb for Work for extended-stay and relocation solutions, this segment remains a key focus for Airbnb,” says David Holyoke, Global Head of Airbnb For Work.

“We have great alignment with the Airbnb team in terms of serving the changing needs of business travelers that want the comforts of home when traveling for extended 30-day stays for work or a project” Taggar follows. Airbnb can help Zeus drive demand thanks to all its inbound traffic, while Zeus offers Airbnb more supply for customers seeking longer stays.

Zeus Living’s co-founders

Zeus’ biggest threat is that it could get overextended, misjudge demand, and end up on the hook to pay rent for two-year leases it can’t fill. And now with more funding, there will be added scrutiny regarding its margins, especially in the wake of the WeWork implosion.

Taggar recognizes these threats. “This is a business where we have to be focused on maximizing the gross profit we generate for the investments we make, with the least amount of risk. At Zeus Living, we’re continuously improving the ways we predict and secure demand.” He’s also building out teams on the ground in different markets to ensure regulatory compliance and push for more conducive laws around 30+ day rental stays.

Property tech has become a heated space, though, so Zeus will have heavy competition. There are traditional corporate housing providers, pure marketplaces that don’t deal with logistics, and direct competitors like $66 million-funded Domio, and juggernaut Sonder which has raised a whopping $360 million. Zeus might also see its model copied abroad before it can get there. Over time, landlords and real estate investment trusts like Blackstone could force Zeus, Sonder, and others to compete to pay them the most for leases, eating into all the startups’ margins.

At least with Airbnb as an investor, Zeus won’t have to fear a bitter battle with the tech giant over corporate housing. Instead, Airbnb could keep investing to coin off this adjacent market while listing Zeus properties, or potentially acquired the startup one day. For now though, Taggar just wants to prove startups can be accountable in the real world, acknowledging that taking over people’s homes is “a lot of responsibility! Our homes represent hundreds of millions of dollars of assets we manage and we take that very seriously.”

 


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