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Main article: Line

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Chat app Line to raise $1.33BN via convertible bonds to double down on financial services

14:53 | 4 September

Move over stickers and games: Japanese messaging app firm Line has announced it’s raising around 148.1 billion yen ($1.33BN) through convertible bonds to fund aggressive expansion into the financial services business, Reuters reports. 

Line said it plans to spend most of the money on promoting its Line Pay service and for other new financial services by the end of 2021.

The messaging platform has been involved in payment offerings for some years, launching Line Pay at the end of 2014 — to let users make payments through the app at affiliated online and offline stores by registering their credit cards.

Line Pay also supports p2p payments between users of the platform, which has some 164M monthly active users in Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia.

While popular in parts of Asia, the messaging platform has failed to grow usage beyond its core regions — unsurprisingly given how fiercely competitive the space is — with the likes of China’s WeChat and Facebook owned WhatsApp standing in its way. But while user growth has stalled, Line has managed to grow revenue from its existing user base. And doubling down on financial services looks to be its growth strategy going forward.

It has recently started experimenting with crypto — announcing the forthcoming launch of a cryptocurrency token (called Link) late last month, and developing its own blockchain to power it, in what looks to be a bid to drive user engagement on its platform. Though it has long used a digital currency (Line Coins) on its platform.

Earlier this year Line also announced the launch of a Singapore-based crypto exchange, called BitBox.

It’s not doing an Initial Coin Offering (ICO) for the Link token launch, presumably to side-step the legal questions around token sales. So the convertible bond sale looks to be its alternative (traditional) route for raise funds for the push to grow its financial services business.

In a statement today Line said it would issue zero coupon convertible bonds maturing in 2023 and 2025.

Reuters reports that a portion of the bonds will be issued to its South Korea-based parent Naver Corp to maintain its ownership above a certain level.

It added that Naver’s stake would fall to 70.42 percent from the current 72.86 percent when all the bonds are converted into stock.

 


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Southeast Asia e-commerce startup iPrice raises $4M led by chat app Line’s VC arm

08:16 | 7 May

iPrice, a service that aggregates Southeast Asia’s e-commerce websites in a single destination, has pulled in new funding led by messaging app Line’s VC arm, Line Ventures.

The round is officially undisclosed, but TechCrunch understands from a source close to negotiations that it is worth around $4 million. Existing iPrice backers Cento Ventures (formerly known as Digital Media Partners) and Venturra Capital also took part in this round.

iPrice, which has its HQ in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, previously raised a $4 million Series A in late 2016. Today’s investment takes the startup to $9.7 million raised overall.

The company was started in 2015 in response to the growing number of e-commerce companies in Southeast Asia, and in particular the increasing number of vertical-specific options. Even though there are some giants, such as Alibaba’s Lazada, the region has a number of smaller players that can struggle for visibility. iPrice was initially a coupon site, before pivoting into an aggregation model which essentially acts as a destination for shoppers to then go on and purchase items from e-commerce retailers.

In a way, it is much like flight booking sites — such as Skyscanner — which ask a customer where they want to go before scouring the web for the best travel deals. iPrice does this for e-commerce in Southeast Asia. It hopes that simplifying things through a single destination portal can make it the go-to online buying site for the region, which now has over 330 million internet users — more than the population of the U.S. — according to a recent report co-authored by Google.

iPrice on the web, although its mobile app and mobile browser version are more used

Today, iPrice claims to offer over 500 million SKUs across Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Hong Kong. The company said that over 50 million people visited its site since December 2016, and this year alone it is aiming to grow to 150 million visitors.

The company said electronics has been a particular driver while, outside of working with e-commerce firms to drive business, it has developed a B2B business with media groups and brands, including Mediacorp in Singapore and Samsung in Indonesia, who pay to tailor its service. Last year, it developed an insightful report on the state of e-commerce in Southeast Asia.

The deal makes sense for Line Ventures because of the unique vantage point that iPrice occupies, while it also ties into parent company Line’s desire to go beyond being a messaging app and build out a mobile ecosystem. That’s seen it develop services such as food delivery, ride-hailing, payments and e-commerce, although it has struggled in the latter category. A relationship with iPrice might give it greater insight for future e-commerce ventures in Southeast Asia.

 


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Chat app Line is reportedly considering its own cryptocurrency

08:32 | 10 January

Tickets please, the next crypto train is about to depart. Japan-based messaging app Line is said to be the latest public company to consider a move into the blockchain and cryptocurrencies, according to a Bloomberg report.

Unlike some of the more obscure and head-scratching moves, which include China’s forgotten social network and an iced tea company, there would be some merit to Line adopting a token.

The company already offers a mobile payment service — Line Pay — and one of its staple features is a virtual currency that is used in its social games and to buy content on its platform, including its vast array of (very communicative) stickers.

Bloomberg reported that Line is in discussions with a number of potential partners, including bitcoin exchange Upbit, over possible tie-ins around Line Pay and other products. The goal, the report claimed, is to make its products stickier with users.

Line did not respond to a request for comment.

Lack of engagement is certainly an issue Line has encountered since it went public via a dual Japan-U.S. listing that raised $1.1 billion in 2016.

Line claimed 218 million in July 2016 — just before the listing — but that had dropped in 203 million by October 2017. The company also lost users from its four core markets — Japan, Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia — for the first time last year. Those countries account for two-thirds of its users, making it a very big problem.

Line’s share price got a 10 percent bump in Japan yesterday, but ultimately it remains to be seen whether, and indeed how, it will utilize the blockchain.

There are already some examples. Kin, a Canada-based messenger that claims 15 million monthly users, held a $100 million ICO last September aimed at developing an ecosystem that rewards users, content makers and advertisers based on ‘attention.’ Telegram, which has emerged as a key platform for the crypto industry, is also planning an ICO which TechCrunch understands could surpass $1 billion.

Line wouldn’t necessarily have to conduct an ICO — the regulations are still hazy for public entities — but it could implement attention-based tokens or the blockchain to reward users for using the messenger, making payments via Line Pay or playing its games.

Disclosure: The author owns small amounts of cryptocurrency

 


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Line adds unsend for recalling missent messages

13:35 | 13 December

Messaging platform Line has added the ability for users to retrieve messages they’ve sent in error.

The unsend feature, which has been added via an update out today, gives users a 24 hour window for unsending missives — so it’s considerably more generous than the unsend option rival platform WhatsApp added in October (which offers a mere seven minutes for users to realize their regrets).

Line doesn’t cite WhatsApp in its explainer for launching the unsend feature — claiming instead that it wants to give users “peace of mind” and expand their “communication choices”.

Line’s unsend feature can be used across chat types — in one-to-one conversations, multi-user and groups chats.

It will also work whether a message has been read or not.

Message types that can be deleted within 24 hours of being sent are listed as: text and voice messages, stickers, images, videos, URLs, Line Music links, contacts, location information, files, and call history.

However smartphone OS notifications cannot be deleted. In addition, Line’s implementation of the feature displays a notification in the chat room indicating that a message has been deleted.

Which means there will always be a trace of any regretful texts you’ve sent in the previous hours — even if you’re gaining the ability to nix the actual content.

Mobile and desktop versions of Line support unsend, with the (current) exception of the Google Chrome version of Line which will only let users receive notifications for messages their friends unsend. “If you wish to unsend a particular message, please use Line on a different device,” it notes on that.

An additional caveat for the feature to work as billed is that you’ll need everyone in a chat where you want to recall a message to have updated to the version of Line that supports the feature. So there will inevitably be a period of time when unsend will not work as intended.

But, down the line, once all your contacts have updated their apps then Line message recalls should be good to go.

To use the feature, a Line user needs to press (or right click) on the specific message or content they want to recall and then select ‘unsend’ from the menu.

 


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Chat app Line doubles its stake in Snapchat clone Snow

07:48 | 27 February

Ahead of Snap’s eagerly awaited IPO, Line, one of the U.S. tech IPO highlights of 2016, has doubled down on sister service and Snapchat clone Snow.

Line and Snow both share the same parent company — Naver — but the two firms have increasingly become financially entwined. Line bought up 25 percent of Snow last September for $45 million, and now it is nearly doubling its equity to 48.6 percent, according to a filing. The deal values Snow at around $207 million (235 billion KRW), according a filing in Japanese, up from 200 billion KRW ($177 million) in September.

Line went public in a dual U.S.-Japan IPO that raised $1.1 billion. Shares initially popped 50 percent on the firm’s Tokyo debut, but there’s been little to celebrate since then. Line saw user numbers dip for the first time in January — despite a record year of revenue in 2016 — while its userbase increasingly limited to four countries: Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan and Thailand. Expanding its presence is an area where it feels that increased collaboration with Snow could bear fruit.

As part of this new deal, Line has agreed to give its photo app business to Snow — that includes selfie app B612, its core Line Camera app, food-focused Foodie, and its makeup preview app Looks — in order to “consolidate and improve the efficiency” of the services.

Line said in another filing that it has been working closely with Snow since its September investment but the competitive nature of photo and video apps means that this deal to combine many of their resources will help both Snow and the Line apps to grow.

Snow reached 40-50 million active users in January, with the app particularly popular in Japan, Korea and China. (Its rising popularity triggered investment interest from Facebook, which was rebuffed.) While Line hopes it may be able to tap into that success to boost its core chat app, it said that the camera apps have proven popular in markets like China, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil and Mexico. Given that each ties back into Line — although they can be used without a Line account — it is also betting that it can reverse its globalization struggles by giving these apps more freedom to grow via this deal.

Investors certainly seemed bullish. Line’s Tokyo share price reached 3,895 JPY at close on Friday, when Line made the announcement. That was up from 3,660 JPY at the start of the day. However, the share price dropped more than two percent when the market reopened on Monday.

 


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Facebook tried to buy Asian Snapchat clone Snow

10:27 | 31 October

Here’s fuel to the fire for those who believe that Facebook will buy anything that looks, smells or moves like Snapchat. The U.S. social networking giant this summer made an unsuccessful bid to acquire Snow, a Snapchat-like service from Naver, the $25 billion-valued Korean firm behind chat app Line, a source close to the company told TechCrunch.

Snow has around 80 million downloads, and it is adding around 10 million more each month, according to the source. That growth has also encouraged acquisition interest from Tencent — the maker of blockbuster chat app WeChat — Alibaba and others, TechCrunch understands.

“It’s true that Snow is receiving love calls from various companies,” a representative from Naver told us in a statement. Despite acknowledging outside interest, Naver did not name Snow’s would-be suitors.

Facebook did not respond to requests for comment.

The app first grabbed attention in the summer when it raced up Android and iOS app store rankings in Korea, Japan and China, collecting some 30 million downloads. A feature story from The New York Times in July, which explained that Snow and Naver were exploiting Snapchat’s apparent lack of interest in Asia, only served to heighten awareness of the app.

Sometime after that story, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg got wind of Snow and contacted Naver Chairman Hae-Jin Lee over the phone with an offer to acquire it. Naver saw Line raise over $1 billion in a dual Japan-U.S. IPO in July of this year, and Lee rejected Facebook’s overtures because he believes Snow has the potential to become a similar success.

Indeed, Naver strengthened ties between the two services in September when Line made a $45 million investment in Snow that gave the social app a valuation of $180 million — not bad for a one-year-old project. With Line struggling to grow its userbase outside of its largest markets of Japan, Thailand and Taiwan, Snow is viewed as a key ally that could help the chat app broaden its appeal in more parts of Asia.

While it is easy to label Snow as a Snapchat clone, the app does have some differentiated features.

For one thing, Naver has worked hard to localize the service in markets, much the same way as it did with Line when the chat app emerged in 2011-2012. Most notably, it is working with celebrities in Korea and Japan, where it sees the most traction and potential, to feature their stories prominently inside the app alongside live streams, too. That helps encourage users back into the app for more reasons than simply to message their friends, while it also may unlock monetizable options in the future.

The app itself has over 36 filters and more than 200 masks, offering considerably more customization options than Snapchat — a move that is in line with appealing to its core audience in Asia. Some options include filters for both images and videos that involve celebrities, cartoon characters, fairies and even one scene as a drunken ‘salary man’ making a toast.

Snapchat — now just ‘Snap’ — is widely reported to be gearing up for an IPO next year that could value the company at around $25 billion. The latest suggestion is that it could raise $4 billion from a listing.

Those figures certainly vindicate CEO Evan Spiegel’s decision to reject a $3 billion bid from Facebook three years ago — even if conventional wisdom at the time suggested he was making a mistake.

It is still early days for Snow, and it remains to be seen whether this will be another app that Facebook will rue missing out on over time.

For now, Facebook is trying to turn its own properties into Snapchat-like competitors using heavy doses of ‘product inspiration’.

Instagram Stories, a feature that the company admits is inspired by Snapchat, reached a very respectable 100 million users within two months, while Facebook has launched smaller projects that include a social video app that’s just for teens, a Snapchat-like camera feature, and a fairly blatant Snapchat clone that is being tested in Poland.

Featured Image: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

 


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Chat app Line backs VC funds to unlock global growth opportunities

14:38 | 29 September

Chat app company Line is investing in international opportunities after it announced that it is backing two VC firms outside of its home-turf in Asia: DAG Ventures in the U.S. and France-based Korelya Capital.

Line, which went public in a billion-dollar dual U.S.-Japan IPO this summer, didn’t disclose its investment into DAG Ventures, but it did say that together with parent company Naver it will put €100 million ($112 million) equally into Korelya Capital’s new K-Fund 1.

In an announcement, the company said these investments are designed to pave the way for it to move beyond its focus on Asia and grow its current 218 million monthly active user base, three-quarters of whom reside in four countries:

LINE is currently strategically focused on the four countries of Japan, Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia, and until now its investment strategy has also focused on investments related to existing LINE business in these four countries. However, looking to the future, the company has determined it is necessary to perform forward-looking investment activities to ensure continuous information-gathering and network-building in regions like the U.S., Europe, China, India where there is a high concentration of advanced tech companies (from globally dominant corporations to promising startups).

Palo Alto-based DAG Ventures is a mid-stage firm that includes Wix, Admob, Cloudera, and GrubHub among its portfolio. Korelya Capital, on the other hand, is a new fund started by former French Minister of Culture and Communications Fleur Pellerin.

This isn’t the first time that Line and Naver have invested in a VC fund. Naver is an LP in Golden Gate Ventures’ latest $60 million fund for Southeast Asia, which is also a strategic move to unlock business opportunities in the region.

This deal with VC firms comes the same day that Line announced a $45 million investment in Snow, a Snapchat clone created by Naver which gained attention in China, Korea, Japan and other parts of Asia.

Featured Image: Lee Jin-man/AP

 


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In a first, FAA allows PrecisionHawk to fly drones where pilots can’t see them

02:04 | 30 August

The Federal Aviation Administration has given permission to a drone tech startup called PrecisionHawk to fly its unmanned aerial vehicles beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) in U.S. airspace.

The exemption represents a first in the country, and comes on the same day that the FAA implemented its Part 107 rules governing the way that businesses can use small drones, up to 55 pounds, in their operations.

PrecisionHawk, based in North Carolina, makes fixed-wing drones for use in agriculture, and cloud-based software called DataMapper to helps businesses save and analyze the aerial images and information they collect using drones.

Verizon Ventures, an investment arm of TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon Communications Inc., is a stakeholder in PrecisionHawk. The company has raised $29 million in venture funding to date according to CrunchBase.

PrecisionHawk’s Lancaster drones compete with the likes of so-called agridrones from Kespry, Parrot, GIS UAV Ltd. and others.

The company’s DataMapper product competes with an increasing number of map-tech and data analytics platforms catering to drone users, including DroneDeploy and 3DR’s Site Scan.

PrecisionHawk EVP Thomas Haun said, “In agriculture, now that we have an exemption to fly beyond the visual line of sight, we can fly an entire farm, not just one field, efficiently.”

The exemption does not mean PrecisionHawk can fly outside of other rules outlined in the FAA’s newly implemented Part 107 regulation, Haun noted. The company will still have to yield to other aircraft, avoid flying over people, fly only during daylight hours and the like.

Instead of giving drone operators a first person view with video cameras, PrecisionHawk uses what it calls a low altitude traffic and airspace safety system (LATAS) to help drone operators automatically avoid air traffic or any other obstacles during flight. That system is powered, in part, by air traffic data from Harris.

The Part 107.31 waiver for PrecisionHawk was the first “VLOS” waiver the FAA granted. The administration issued 76 total waivers on the day that Part 107 went into effect, most of which applied to operators flying at night.

Featured Image: precisionhawk.com

 


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Chat app Line makes over $270 million a year from selling stickers

11:57 | 13 June

You may have heard of stickers, the cutesy, cartoonish version of emojis, but did you know that they can also be a money-spinner?

Japanese mobile messaging app Line is banking more than $20 million per month selling sticker packs, which typically trade for $1-2 for sets of 12-18, according to data from the company.

Line finally filed for a dual U.S.-Japanese IPO last Friday following aborted efforts in 2014 and 2015, thereby opening some of its previously tightly guarded financial information to public eyes.

It’s not an overstatement to say that Line has single-handedly pioneered stickers, which are now a fairly staple part of most social apps. But, beyond being cute, they generated the company an altogether-not-too-shabby JPY 28,725 million ($271 million) in revenue in 2015 — that’s up 38 percent on the previous year.

It’s also more than double the already impressive $10 million that the company was banking in 2013, and it accounts for around one-quarter of Line’s total sales. That’s important since Line is hugely dependent on Japan for nearly 90 percent of its revenue, and stickers have appeal outside of the country and among more casual users. Indeed, Line said that its users send an average of 389 million stickers — paid and free — each day, that’s around nine percent of the total number of messages sent on the service daily.

Stickers aren’t the only surprising form of income for Line: the company also disclosed that it made over JPY 2 billion ($18.8 million) from sales of merchandising and licensing deals last year for its Line characters, the figures who star in its sticker packs and front its brand. That’s double the 2014 figure.

Characters like Brown the mute but caring bear and impulsive, emotional figure Moon have made the leap from chat app to small screen via a TV show that started out in Line’s native Japan but have been exported worldwide. But Line also cashes in on its faces through a number of physical stores in Asia and beyond — such as the one we visited in Korea — that sell all manner of merchandising, from mugs, to pillows, plush dolls and actual physical stickers.

Together, the stickers and merchandising account for nearly one-third of Line’s total revenue, but they also help put a face on the app which the company thinks can help it win new markets. It remains to be seen if now, in the year 2016 with the messaging space long matured, whether dislodging a chat app in a country is even possible, but Line certainly has a strong brand which could resonate among other parts of Asia, where most of its 215 million active users are based.

I see LINE ads everywhere, including this Thai AirAsia plane. ping @jonrussell pic.twitter.com/W57iQ91jrr

— Binderdonedat (@Binderdonedat) August 16, 2014

Ultimately Line makes most of its money through focused advertising and games and it hasn’t broken even yet. But, if nothing else, its sticker and merchandising sales show that the offline component to digital businesses shouldn’t be underestimated.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin

 


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Messaging app Line files for IPO on NYSE on July 14, Tokyo July 15, trading as LN, to raise $1B

11:27 | 10 June

Two years after the first reports of an IPO emerged, Japan’s Line Corporation — the company behind the popular messaging app Line, and possibly the first of the big messaging apps to go public — today announced that it has filed to go public on the New York Stock Exchange in the U.S. and the Tokyo Stock Exchange in Japan, trading as LN. The company today said in a news release that the NYSE listing is planned for July 14 with the Tokyo listing on July 15. The Tokyo exchange has already approved its listing of common stock, and the SEC F-1 filing for the U.S. part of the IPO will appear later today, the company added.

The announcement in English linked above did not provide details of how much Line, which is valued at over $4 billion, plans to raise, but those numbers have been made public on documents filed on the Tokyo exchange (in Japanese), and Line has confirmed the numbers to me directly: it hopes to raise $1 billion (113 billion yen) in the IPO, offering 35 million shares with an over-allotment of 5.25 million shares and 13 million of that in Japan. Pricing will be set June 27, with final price revealed July 11. The offering values the company at ¥588 billion ($5.5 billion).

The company tells me that it now has 218 million monthly active users globally, with 152 million in its top 4 countries in Asia. It will be aiming to use the huge fundraise to take on growth in new markets.

“After rounds of serious investigations, we determined that it is important that we are evaluated on the same market as other top global services. Furthermore, listing on the NYSE will help strengthen our branding as a global company,” a spokesperson told me. “LINE is a company that takes on challenges, and our simultaneous listing in Japan and the US is a declaration that we are ready to take on the world.”

Competitors like Messenger and WhatsApp, both owned by Facebook, cumulatively have billions of users. Other rivals include Rakuten-owned Viber and China’s WeChat (owned by Tencent). Line is one of the biggest of the messaging apps to still remain independent of any larger owner, and the first to go public.

Line has been evaluating an IPO since 2014, with the first reports emerging exactly two years to the date of its proposed actual listing.

“LINE, a principal subsidiary of the Company, is evaluating a potential listing in Japan and/or the United States. In connection therewith, LINE has submitted certain documentation, including a listing application, to relevant authorities such as the Tokyo Stock Exchange,” a company spokesperson at the time told me in an email. “However, determinations regarding whether to ultimately list, listing venue and listing timing, etc, have not been made. We will provide an update once such determinations are made or within one month of this disclosure.”

It’s not clear whether Line thought the market would rise even more ahead, or if it still thought it could use a delay to scale more before a listing and use the time to improve its monetization. All of those have happened to some extent, with the launch of a raft of new services and features, some of which (such as third-party services ordered, paid for and delivered within the app’s messaging framework) replicated elsewhere.

But on the financial front, times have really changed in the last two years. When reports first emerged of the company looking to list, it was actually estimated to be valued at around ¥1 trillion — almost double today’s valuation, which is a mark perhaps of how over-inflated prices were then, or how tough the messaging market is and appears to be consolidating rapidly with the big simply getting bigger.

The NYSE proposed IPO, the company said, will be of a new listing of American Depository Shares representing shares of common stock. It’s notable not just for the size of the IPO, but also because of the fact that this is the first time that a Japanese company is listing both in Tokyo and the NYSE.

We’ll be updating this as we learn more.

 


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