California may mandate a woman in the boardroom, but businesses are fighting it

California is moving toward becoming the first state to require companies to have women on their boards –assuming the idea could survive a likely court challenge.

Sparked by debates around fair pay, sexual harassment and workplace culture, two female state senators are spearheading a bill to promote greater gender representation in corporate decision-making. Of the 445 publicly traded companies in California, a quarter of them lack a single woman in their boardrooms.

SB 826, which won Senate approval with only Democratic votes and has until the end of August to clear the Assembly, would require publicly held companies headquartered in California to have at least one woman on their boards of directors by end of next year. By 2021, companies with boards of five directors must have at least two women, and companies with six-member boards must have at least three women. Firms failing to comply would face a fine.

“Gender diversity brings a variety of perspectives to the table that can help foster new and innovative ideas,” said Democratic Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara, who is sponsoring the bill with Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins of San Diego.”It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s good for a company’s bottom line.”

Yet critics of the bill say it violates the federal and state constitutions. Business associations say the rule would require companies to discriminate against men wanting to serve on boards, as well as conflict with corporate law that says the internal affairs of a corporation should be governed by the state law in which it is incorporated. This bill would apply to companies headquartered in California.

Jennifer Barrera, senior vice president of policy at the California Chamber of Commerce, argued against the bill and said it only focuses “on one aspect of diversity” by singling out gender.

“This bill basically mandates that we hire the woman above anybody else who we may be fulfilling for purposes of diversity,” she said at a hearing.

Similarly, a legislative analysis of the bill cautioned that it could get challenged on equal protection grounds, and that it would be difficult to defend, requiring the state to prove a compelling government interest in such a quota system for a private corporation.

Five years ago, California was the first state to pass a resolution, authored by Jackson, calling on public companies to increase gender diversity. In response, about 20 percent of the companies headquartered in the state followed through with putting women on their boards, according to the research firm Board Governance Research. But the resolution was non-binding and expired in December 2016.

Other countries have been more proactive. Norway in 2007 was the first country to pass a law requiring 40 percent of corporate board seats be held by women, and Germany set a 30 percent requirement in 2015. Spain, France and Italy have also set quotas for public firms.

In California, smaller companies have fewer female directors. Out of 50 companies with the lowest revenues, 48 percent have no female directors, according to Board Governance Research. Only 8 percent of their board seats are held by women.

The 2017 study said larger companies did a better job of appointing women, with all 50 of the highest-revenue companies having at least one female director and 23 percent of board seats held by women.

“The main issue is still that a lot of companies headquartered here don’t have women on their boards,” said Annalisa Barrett, clinical professor of finance at the University of San Diego’s School of Business. “We quite often like to think of California as progressive and a leader on social issues, so that’s kind of disappointing.”

Barrett publishes an annual report of women on boards in California. Public companies are major employers in the state, and their financial performance has a big impact on public pension funds, mutual funds and investment portfolios. “Financial performance does really impact the broader community,” she said.

The National Association of Women Business Owners, sponsor of the bill, says an economy as big as California’s ought to “set an example globally for enlightened business practice.” In a letter of support, the association cites studies that suggest corporations with female directors perform better than those with no women on their boards.

One University of California, Davis study did find that companies with more women serving on their boards saw a higher return on assets and equity, but the author acknowledges this may not suggest a cause-and-effect.

AI training and social network content moderation services bring TaskUs a $250 million windfall

TaskUs, the business process outsourcing service that moderates content, annotates information and handles back office customer support for some of the world’s largest tech companies, has raised $250 million in an investment from funds managed by the New York-based private equity giant, Blackstone Group.

It’s been ten years since TaskUs was founded with a $20,000 investment from its two co-founders, and the new deal, which values the decade-old company at $500 million before the money even comes in, is proof of how much has changed for the service in the years since it was founded.

The Santa Monica-based company, which began as a browser-based virtual assistant company — “You send us a task and we get the task done,” recalled TaskUs chief executive Bryce Maddock — is now one of the main providers in the growing field of content moderation for social networks and content annotation for training the algorithms that power artificial intelligence services around the world.

“What I can tell you is we do content moderation for almost every major social network and it’s the fastest growing part of our business today,” Maddock said.

From a network of offices spanning the globe from Mexico to Taiwan and the Philippines to the U.S., the thirty two year-old co-founders Maddock and Jaspar Weir have created a business that’s largest growth stems from snuffing out the distribution of snuff films; child pornography; inappropriate political content and the trails of human trafficking from the user and advertiser generated content on some of the world’s largest social networks.

(For a glimpse into how horrific that process can be, take a look at this article from Wiredwhich looked at content moderation for the anonymous messaging service, Whisper.)

Maddock estimates that while the vast majority of the business was outsourcing business process services in the company’s early days (whether that was transcribing voice mails to texts for the messaging service PhoneTag, or providing customer service and support for companies like HotelTonight) now about 40% of the business comes from content moderation.

Image courtesy of Getty Images

Indeed, it was the growth in new technology services that attracted Blackstone to the business, according to Amit Dixit, Senior Managing Director at Blackstone.

“The growth in ride sharing, social media, online food delivery, e-commerce and autonomous driving is creating an enormous need for enabling business services,” said Dixit in a statement. “TaskUs has established a leadership position in this domain with its base of marquee customers, unique culture, and relentless focus on customer delivery.”

While the back office business processing services remain the majority of the company’s revenue, Maddock knows that the future belongs to an increasing automation of the company’s core services. That’s why part of the money is going to be invested in a new technology integration and consulting business that advises tech companies on which new automation tools to deploy, along with shoring up the company’s position as perhaps the best employer to work for in the world of content moderation and algorithm training services.

It’s been a long five year journey to get to the place it’s in now, with glowing reviews from employees on Glassdoor and social networks like Facebook, Maddock said. The company pays well above minimum wage in the market it operates in (Maddock estimates at least a 50% premium); and provides a generous package of benefits for what Maddock calls the “frontline” teammates. That includes perks like educational scholarships for one child of employees that have been with the company longer than one year; healthcare plans for the employee and three beneficiaries in the Philippines; and 120 days of maternity leave.

And, as content moderation is becoming more automated, the TaskUs employees are spending less time in the human cesspool that attempts to flood social networks every day.

“Increasingly the work that we’re doing is more nuanced. Does this advertisement have political intent. That type of work is far more engaging and could be seen to be a little bit less taxing,” Maddock said.

But he doesn’t deny that the bulk of the hard work his employees are tasked with is identifying and filtering the excremental trash that people would post online.

“I do think that the work is absolutely necessary. The alternative is that everybody has to look at this stuff. it has to be done in a way thats thoughtful and puts the interests of the people who are on the frontlines at the forefront of that effort,” says Maddock. “There have been multiple people who have been involved in sex trafficking, human trafficking and pedophilia that have been arrested directly because of the work that TaskUs is doing. And the consequence of someone not doing that is a far far worse world.”

Maddock also said that TaskUs now shields its employees from having to perform content moderation for an entire shift. “What we have tried to do universally is that there is a subject matter rotation so that you are not just sitting and doing that work all day.”

And the company’s executive knows how taxing the work can be because he said he does it himself. “I try to spend a day a quarter doing the work of our frontline teammates. I spend half my time in our offices,” Maddock said.

Now, with the new investment, TaskUs is looking to expand into additional markets in the UK, Europe, India, and Latin America, Maddock said.

“So far all we’ve been doing is hiring as fast as we possibly can,” said Maddock. “At some point in the future, there’s going to be a point when companies like ours will see the effects of automation,” he added, but that’s why the company is investing in the consulting business… so it can stay ahead of the trends in automation.

Even with the threat that automation could pose to the company’s business, TaskUs had no shortage of other suitors for the massive growth equity round, according to one person familiar with the company. Indeed, Goldman Sachs and Softbank were among the other bidders for a piece of TaskUs, the source said.

Currently, the company has over 11,000 employees (including 2,000 in the U.S.) and is looking to expand.

“We chose to partner with Blackstone because they have a track record of building category defining businesses. Our goal is to build TaskUs into the world’s number one provider of tech enabled business services.  This partnership will help us dramatically increase our investment in consulting, technology and innovation to support our customer’s efforts to streamline and refine their customer experience,” said Maddock in a statement.

The transaction is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2018, subject to regulatory approvals and customary closing conditions.

Japan’s Freee raises $60M to grow its cloud accounting business

Japan-based accounting software company Freee, one of the country’s most-prominent startups, has raised a $60 million Series E funding round as it bids to expand its services into other areas of management for its customers.

Freee was founded six years ago — we wrote about the startup when it raised a Series A in 2013 — which makes it one of the ‘oldest’ startups in Japan, while this round is also a large one for the country, too. Japan’s startup ecosystem has a culture that encourages founders to take their companies’ public earlier than in most parts of the world, to mitigate some risk, but there are signs of alternative approaches that include this round and of course the recent IPO of Mercari, which went public this summer and raised over $1 billion.

“Japan is a country that respects precedent a lot,” Freee founder and CEO Daisuke Sasaki told TechCrunch in an interview. “Having present cases will change [the culture] a lot, we are staying private and investing in growth. The ecosystem isn’t changing [yet] but [startups, founders and VCs] now have more options.”

Free was one of the first Japanese startups to raise from overseas investors, a move that helped get Japanese VCs interested in enterprise and Saas, and this time around it has pulled in capital from a bunch of big names: Chat app company Line, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG) — Japan’s largest bank — consumer credit firm Life Card and “several [unnamed] international institutional investors.”

DCM and Infinity Investments are among the startup’s earliest backers.

Today, Freee offers cloud-based accounting and HR software and it claims to have over one million business accounts. It has over 5,000 certified accountant advisors — who help it reach new customers and also use it for their own work — and the company said that over 3,500 apps and services, including mainly financial products, are integration with its software.

Going forward, Sasaki — who is a former Googler — said Freee will use this new capital to build out an API ecosystem to enable more integrations — some of its practical ones right now include Slack and Salesforce — while it is planning a major collaboration with Line to allow Line business customers to integrate their use of the app with Free, while it is exploring how it can collaborate around Line Pay.

Freee founder and CEO Daisuke Sasaki

Freee is also focused on expanding the scope of its services to branch out into products that help with more general management and operational tasks.

“We want to focus not only on back office but also to add value to customers to make their businesses better through dashboards, reporting and insight. Customers who use the [existing business] reports grow faster. Our vision is to give much better insight and business advice through AI [and] to do that we need more data, not just back office but front line too,” Sasaki said.

Finally, the startup is exploring ways it can enable banks and financial organizations to work more closely with its customer base. Already customers can share data within Freee to banks for assessment for loans and other credit products, and the company is exploring the potential to introduce a marketplace that would give its customers a place to scout out financial products at more preferential rates.

“Initially we focused on small business but now our biggest customers have a couple of hundred employees so we are going upmarket,” Sasaki told TechCrunch.

One area Freee won’t be moving into is overseas markets. Yet at least. Sasaki explained that the company wants to build out that vision of an expanded ecosystem of connected services and more in-depth business tools before branching out into new countries.

SmartHR, a younger rival to free which specializes in HR as the name suggests, raised $13.3 million earlier this year to push on into areas such as payroll and more. That could begin to pose a threat to Freee, particularly since SmartHR a developer platform to hose third-party applications and services.

LemonBox brings US vitamins and health products to consumers in China

China is rising in many ways — the economy, consumer spending and technology — but still many of its population looks overseas, and particularly to the West, for cues on lifestyle and health. That’s a theme that’s being seized by LemonBox, a China-U.S. startup that lets Chinese consumers buy U.S. health products at affordable prices.

Indeed, the recent scare around Chinese vaccinations, which saw faulty inoculations given to babies and toddlers in a number of provinces, has only fueled demand for overseas health products which LemonBox founder Derek Weng discovered himself when his father was diagnosed as having high blood sugar levels. Weng, then working in the U.S. for Walmart, was able to look up and buy the right medicine pills for his father and bring them back to China himself. He realized, however, that others are not so fortunate.

After polling friends and family, he set up an experimental WeChat app in 2016 that dispensed health information such as articles and information. Within a year, it had racked up 30,000 subscribers and given him the confidence to jump into the business fully.

Today, LemonBox allows Chinese consumers to buy its own-branded daily vitamin packs from the U.S.. Further down the line, the goal is to expand into more specific verticals, including mother and baby, beauty and daily supplements, according to Weng, who believes that the timing is good.

“For the first time in China, people are taking a major interest in health and are working out, while society is becoming more developed,” he told TechCrunch in an interview. “We estimate that Chinese consumers are investing 30 percent of their income in health.”

The LemonBox daily pack of vitamins.

Since its full launch three weeks ago, LemonBox has pulled in 700 customers with 40 percent purchasing a three-month bundle package and the remainder a monthly order, Weng said. Typical basket size is around 300 RMB, or nearly $45.

To get the business off the ground, Weng needed expert support and his co-founder Hang Xu — who is also LemonBox’s “Chief Nutrition Scientist” — has spent 10 years in the field of nutrition science. Xu holds a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University, is a U.S.-registered dietitian and has published over 10 research papers. The startup’s third co-founder, Eddy Meng (CMO), is a graduate of Chinese app store startup Wandoujia which sold to Alibaba two years ago.

Right now, LemonBox has offices in the U.S. and China and it is squarely focused on e-commerce but Weng said the company is looking to introduce other kinds of health services. That could include consultations with dietary experts and specific offerings for patients leaving a hospital or in other long-term care situations, as well as potentially own-label products.

“We look at Stitch Fix for inspiration,” Weng said. “Right now, it leverages data to develop its own in-house private label products that improve on margin and the accuracy of recommendations. This kind of data and further services will be the next stage for us.”

LemonBox raised a seed round in March, which included participation from Y Combinator, and as part of Y Combinator’s current program, it’ll present to prospective investors at the program’s demo day. Already, though, Weng said there’s been interest from investors which the company is thinking over.

Interestingly, it was forth time lucky entering YC for Weng, who had before applied with previous startups unsuccessfully. This time it was entirely circumstantial. He applied to be in the audience for Y Combinator’s ‘Startup School’ event that took place in Beijing in May.

Unbeknownst to him, YC picked out a handful of attendees whose companies were of interest, and, after an interview that Weng didn’t realize was an audition, LemonBox was selected and fast-tracked into the organization’s latest program. In addition, YC joined the startup’s seed funding round which had initially closed in March.

That anecdotal evidence says much of YC’s effort to grab a larger slice of China’s startup ecosystem.

The organization has aggressively recruited companies from under-represented regions such as India, Southeast Asia and Africa, but China remains a tough spot. According to YC’s own data, fewer than 10 Chinese companies have passed through its corridors. That’s low considering that the organization counts over 1,400 graduates.

With events like the one in May, which helped snare LemonBox, and a new China-centric role for partner Eric Migicovsky, who founded Pebble, YC is trying harder than ever.

MallforAfrica goes global, Kobo360 and Sokowatch raise VC, France explains its $76M fund

B2B e-commerce company Sokowatch closed a $2 million seed investment led by 4DX Ventures. Others to join the round were Village Global, Lynett Capital, Golden Palm Investments, and Outlierz  Ventures.

The Kenya based company aims to shake up the supply chain market for Africa’s informal retailers.

Sokowatch’s platform connects Africa’s informal retail stores directly to local and multi-national suppliers—such as Unilever and Proctor and Gamble—by digitizing orders, delivery, and payments with the aim of reducing costs and increasing profit margins.

“With both manufacturers and the small shops, we’re becoming the connective layer between them, where previously you had multiple layers of middle-men from distributors, sub-distributors, to wholesalers,” Sokowatch founder and CEO Daniel Yu told TechCrunch.

“The cost of sourcing goods right now…we estimate we’re cutting that cost by about 20 percent [for] these shopkeepers,” he said

“There are millions of informal stores across Africa’s cities selling hundreds of billions worth of consumer goods every year,” said Yu.

These stores can use Sokowatch’s app on mobile phones to buy wares directly from large suppliers, arrange for transport, and make payments online. “Ordering on SMS or Android gets you free delivery of products to your store, on average, in about two hours,” said Yu.

Sokowatch generates revenues by earning “a margin on the goods that we’re selling to shopkeepers,” said Yu. On the supplier side, they also benefit from “aggregating demand…and getting bulk deals on the products that we distribute.”

The company recently launched a line of credit product to extend working capital loans to platform clients. With the $2 million round, Sokowatch—which currently operates in Kenya and Tanzania—plans to “expand to new markets in East Africa, as well as pilot additional value add services to the shops,” said Yu.

MallforAfrica and DHL launched MarketPlaceAfrica.com: a global e-commerce site for select African artisans to sell wares to buyers in any of DHL’s 220 delivery countries.

The site will prioritize fashion items — clothing, bags, jewelry, footwear and personal care — and crafts, such as pictures and carvings. MallforAfrica is vetting sellers for MarketPlace Africa online and through the Africa Made Product Standards association (AMPS), to verify made-in-Africa status and merchandise quality.

“We’re starting off in Nigeria and then we’ll open in Kenya, Rwanda and the rest of Africa, utilizing DHL’s massive network,” MallforAfrica CEO Chris Folayan told TechCrunch about where the goods will be sourced. “People all around the world can buy from African artisans online, that’s the goal,” Folayan told TechCrunch.

Current listed designer products include handbags from Chinwe Ezenwa and Tash women’s outfits by Tasha Goodwin.

In addition to DHL for shipping, MarketPlace Africa will utilize MallforAfrica’s e-commerce infrastructure. The startup was founded in 2011 to solve challenges global consumer goods companies face when entering Africa.

French President Emmanuel Macron  href=”https://pctechmag.com/2018/05/french-president-emmanuel-macron-launches-a-usd76m-africa-startup-fund/”>unveiled a $76 million African startup fund at VivaTech 2018 and TechCrunch paid a visit to the French Development Agency (AFD) — who will administer the new fund — to get details on how it will work.

The $76 million (or €65 million) will divvy up into three parts, AFD Digital Task Team Leader Christine Ha told TechCrunch.

“There are €10 million [$11.7 million] for technical assistance to support the African ecosystem… €5 million will be available as interest-free loans to high-potential, pre-seed startups…and…€50 million [$58 million] will be for equity-based investments in series A to C startups,” explained Ha during a meeting in Paris.

The technical assistance will distribute in the form of grants to accelerators, hubs, incubators and coding programs. The pre-seed startup loans will issue in amounts up to $100,000 “as early, early funding to allow entrepreneurs to prototype, launch and experiment,” said Ha.

The $58 million in VC startup funding will be administered through Proparco, a development finance institution — or DFI — partially owned by the AFD. “Proparco will take equity stakes, and will be a limited partner when investing in VC funds,” said Ha.

Startups from all African countries can apply for a piece of the $58 million by contacting any of Proparco’s Africa offices.

The $11.7 million technical assistance and $5.8 million loan portions of France’s new fund will be available starting in 2019. On implementation, AFD is still “reviewing several options…such as relying on local actors through [France’s] Digital Africa platform,” said Ha. President Macron followed up the Africa fund announcement with a trip to Nigeria last month.

Nigerian logistics startup Kobo360 was accepted into Y Combinator’s 2018 class and gained some working capital in the form of $1.2 million in pre-seed funding led by Western Technology Investment.

The startup — with an Uber like app that connects Nigerian truckers to companies with freight needs — will use the funds to pay drivers online immediately after successful hauls.

Kobo360 is also launching the Kobo Wealth Investment Network, or KoboWIN — a crowd-invest, vehicle financing program. Through it, Kobo drivers can finance new trucks through citizen investors and pay them back directly (with interest) over a 60-month period.

On Kobo360’s utility, “We give drivers the demand and technology to power their businesses,” CEO Obi Ozor told TechCrunch. “An average trucker will make $3,500 a month with our app. That’s middle class territory in Nigeria.”

Kobo360 has served 324 businesses, aggregated a fleet of 5480 drivers and moved 37.6 million kilograms of cargo since 2017, per company stats. Top clients include Honeywell, Olam, Unilever, and DHL.

Ozor thinks the startup’s asset-free, digital platform and business model can outpace traditional long-haul 3PL providers in Nigeria by handling more volume at cheaper prices.

“Logistics in Nigeria have been priced based on the assumption drivers are going to run empty on the way back…When we now match freight with return trips, prices crash.”

Kobo360 will expand in Togo, Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire and Senegal.

[PHOTO: BFX.LAGOS] And finally, applications are open for TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield Africa, to be held in Lagos, Nigeria, December 11. Early-stage African startups have until September 3 to apply here.

More Africa Related Stories @TechCrunch

More Africa Related Stories @TechCrunch

·         CowryWise micro-savings service opens high-yield government bonds to everyday Nigerians


African Tech Around the Net

·         More Than Half of Sub-Saharan Africa to Be Connected to Mobile by 2025, Finds New GSMA Study
·         Ethiopia’s Gebeya acquires Coders4Africa to accelerate its growth
·         Rwanda, Andela partner to launch pan-African tech hub in Kigali
·         Google’s free public Wi-Fi initiative expanded to Africa
·         Accounteer wins 2018 MEST Entrepreneur challenge
·         SafeBoda completes expansion to Kenya, now live in Nairobi
·         Uganda government sued over social media tax

Golden Gate Ventures hits first close on new $100M fund for Southeast Asia

One of the fascinating things about watching an emerging startup ecosystem is that it isn’t just companies that are scaling, the very VC firms that feed them are growing themselves, too. That’s perhaps best embodied by Golden Gate Ventures, a Singapore-based firm founded by three Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in 2011 which is about to close a huge new fund for Southeast Asia.

Golden Gate started out with a small seed investment fund before raising a second worth $60 million in 2015. Now it is in the closes stages of finalizing a new $100 million fund, which has completed a first close of over $65 million in commitments, a source with knowledge of discussions told TechCrunch.

A filing lodged with the SEC in June first showed the firm’s intent to raise $100 million. The source told TechCrunch that a number of LPs from Golden Gate’s previous funds have already signed up, including Naver, while Mistletoe, the firm run by SoftBank Chairman Masayoshi Son’s brother Taizo, is among the new backers joining.

Golden Gate’s existing LP base also includes Singapore sovereign fund Temasek, Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, and South Korea’s Hanwha.

A full close for the fund is expected before the end of the year.

The firm has made over 40 investments to date and its portfolio includes mobile classifieds service Carousell, automotive sales startup Carro, real estate site 99.co, and payment gateway Omise. TechCrunch understands that the firm’s investment thesis will remain the same with this new fund. When it raised its second fund, founding partner Vinnie Lauria told us that Golden Gate had found its match at early-stage investing and it will remain lean and nimble like the companies it backs.

One significant change internally, however, sees Justin Hall promoted to partner at the fund. He joins Lauria, fellow founding partner Jeffrey Paine, and Michael Lints at partner level.

Hall first joined Golden Gate in 2012 as an intern while still a student, before signing on full-time in 2013. His rise through the ranks exemplifies the growth and development within Southeast Asia’s startup scene over that period — it isn’t just limited to startups themselves.

The Golden Gate Ventures team circa 2016 — it has since added new members

With the advent of unicorns such as ride-sharing firms Grab and Go-Jek, travel startup Traveloka, and e-commerce companies like Tokopedia, Southeast Asia has begun to show potential for homegrown tech companies in a market that includes over 650 million consumers and more than 300 million internet users. The emergence of these companies has spiked investor interest, which provides the capital that is the lifeblood for VCs and their funds.

Golden Gate is the only one raising big. Openspace, formerly NSI Ventures, is raising $125 million for its second fund, Jungle Ventures is said to be planning a $150 million fund, and Singapore’s Golden Equator and Korea Investment Partners have a joint $88 million fund, while Temasek-linked Vertex closed a record $210 million fund last year.

Growth potential is leading the charge but at the same time funds are beginning to focus on realizing returns for LPs through exits, which is challenging since there have been few acquisitions of meaningful size or public listings out of Southeast Asia so far. But, for smaller funds, the results are already promising.

Data from Prequin, which tracks investment money worldwide, shows that Golden Gate’s first fund has already returned a multiple of over 4X, while its second is at 1.3 despite a final close in 2016.

Beyond any secondary sales — it is not uncommon for early-stage backers to sell a minority portion of equity as more investment capital pours in — Golden Gate’s exits have included the sale of Redmart to Lazada (although not a blockbuster), Priceline’s acquisition of Woomoo, Line’s acquisition of Temanjalan and the sale of Mapan (formerly Ruma) to Go-Jek.

What every startup founder should know about exits

The dream of a startup founder can often be summarized by the following well-intentioned, and mostly delusional, quote: “We’ll raise a few rounds and in a few years we’ll IPO on Nasdaq.”

But a more likely scenario looks something like this:

You invest a few years of hard work to build something of value. One day you receive an acquisition offer out of the blue. You’re elated. And you’re not prepared. You drop everything to focus on this opportunity. Exclusive due diligence starts. Your company is a mess (IP, contracts, burn). Days become weeks; weeks become months. You’ve neglected business and fundraising. You’re running out of money. M&A is now your one and only option. The buyer says they found a bunch of cockroaches in the walls and drops the price. Now what?

Sound unlikely?

This is still a favorable situation: You had an offer! Think about how much time you invested in your various funding rounds. The hundreds of names and Google spreadsheet or Streak-powered quasi-CRM process.

Have you spent even a fraction of that on understanding exit paths? If you’d rather not live the situation described above, read along.

The E-word: A strange taboo

Investors live by exits, but many founders keep dreaming of unicornization and avoid the “E-word” until it’s too late. Yet, in 2016, 97 percent of exits were M&As. And most happened before Series B.

Exits matter because that’s when you, your team and your investors get paid. Oddly enough, and to use a chess metaphor, we hear a lot about the “opening game” (lean startup) and the “mid-game” (growth), but very little about this “end game.

As a result, founders miss opportunities or leave money on the table. This is a shame. Our fund has more than 700 companies in portfolio. We want the best possible exit for each of them. And fortune favors the prepared! Now, how to get 700 exits (and counting)?

To explore the topic, we organized a series of Master Classes tapping corporate buyers, bankers, investors, lawyers and startup CEOs with M&A or IPO experience in San Francisco. It was a group that included the founders of Guitar Hero —  bought by Activision; JUMP Bikes —  a SOSV portfolio company bought by Uber, Ubiquisys —  bought by Cisco and Withings —  bought by Nokia. Each one for hundreds of millions.

Their observations can be summarized below.

Maximize optionality

“Founders must be aware of what contributes to an exit. This means understanding partnerships and how they are formed in the business space the entrepreneur is working in,” said one Master Class participant.  

As founders, you build your product, your company and… optionality. You need to understand the options open to your company, and take steps to enable them.

The most likely one is an acquisition, but there are others like IPO (including small cap), RTO, SBO, LBO, Equity Crowdfunding and even ICO.

“Exit is not a goal ​per se, but as a CEO it is something you should think about as early in your cycle as possible, while being business-focused,” said the London-based investor Frederic Rombaut, of Seraphim Capital.

Indeed, most participants said that exits should always be on the chief executive’s agenda, no matter how early in the process. “Exits should be on the CEO agenda. Not front and center, but on the agenda. M&A is a by-product of a great business and targeted BD. IPOs are always an option once you’ve built significant cashflow forecasting.”

It’s important to ask questions like: How many “strategic engagements” with potential buyers have you had this month? Is your message and value clear in their eyes? Have you considered an acquisition track in parallel to a fundraise?

It doesn’t stop there:

  • Equity crowdfunding might help close some gaps at seed stage.
  • Early IPOs on smaller exchanges can be an option to raise over $10 million —  the robotics startup Balyo went public and raised €40 million on Euronext to get rid of a critical “right of first refusal” option held by one of its corporate investors.
  • Reverse mergers can work too: the medical exoskeleton company EKSO Bionics went public this way.

One thing is sure: The time to exit is not when you’re running out of money.

Companies are bought, not sold

Unicorn or not, the most likely exit is an acquisition.

As George Patterson, managing director at HSBC in New York said, “Good tech companies are bought, not sold. The question is thus: how to get bought?”

Patterson says it’s important to understand how mergers and acquisitions actually work; how to prepare a startup for an exit; and how to develop a “feel” for the market you’re exiting through and into.

How M&A works

Hearing from corp dev veterans from Cisco, Logitech, Dassault and IBM, a few key ideas emerged:

Motivations vary

It could be from least to most expensive, or as a mix, as listed by Mark Suster, managing partner at Upfront Ventures:

  1. Talent hire ($1 million/dev as a rule of thumb —  location matters)
  2. Product gap
  3. Revenue driver
  4. Strategic threat (avoid or delay disruption)
  5. Defensive move (can’t afford a competitor to own it)

How corporates find you

Corporates find deals via the development of partnerships, investment (CVC), their business units, corp dev research, media and investor connections.

Asked about the best approach, Todd Neville, manager of Corporate Business Development and Strategy at IBM (who gave the most detailed description of the corp dev process), said, “Do something cool to one of the IBM customers. If they rave about even a POC, we’re interested.”

In other words, business development is corporate development. 

Get the house in order

Buyers typically want to know three things:

  1. Is your IP really yours?
  2. Is your team capable?
  3. Will your customers stick around?

For IP, they will check your contracts (staff and contractors), and run some automated code analysis for proprietary code and open source use. They will evaluate potential IP infringement. No point buying you if you end up costing more in lawsuits!

For your team skills: Sitting down with your engineers will tell them plenty enough without understanding the details of this or that algorithm. The last thing a corporate wants is to be accused of stealing!

Lawyers engaged early can help. The later the clean-up, the more costly and painful.

Develop a feel for your “market”

Develop relationships and create champions within corporates. It will help promote your deal when the time comes, and will let you keep your finger on the pulse of corporate strategy to time your moves.

Do you read the earning calls of Cisco or IBM (or others relevant to you)? This is where strategies are presented. Are your keywords coming up there or in their press releases?

Chris Gilbert, former CEO of Ubiquisys (sold to Cisco for more than $300 million) was very deliberate in planning his exit.

Selling starts on day one and is a leadership-only function —  work out who will be your buyer. Only the CEO can do this. Constantly articulate why a company should buy you,” Gilbert said. Bring clear messages into the acquiring company so it can be presented upwards: give them the presentation you would like them to show their boss! When the time is right, force decisions through competition. If you know they have to buy you, your starting position is strong.”

The dark art of price discovery

There are dozens of formulas (from DCF to comparables) to evaluate a deal —  which also means none is “correct.” What matters is: How much would you sell for, and how much is the buyer ready to pay?

Gilbert, at Ubiquisys, described how close interactions with his banker helped drive the price up among the bidders assembled.

Just like buyers, we meet bankers and lawyers too rarely at startup events, but there is much to learn with them. They make deals happen, avoid value erosion and optimize price. They often also make introductions before you engage them, to build goodwill and earn your business.

And if you worry about fees, the right banker handsomely pays for itself by finding more bidders and playing “bad cop” for you, avoiding direct confrontation with your future employer. Do you want a slice of the watermelon or the whole grape?

Final twist: Exits are not exits

When asked about what happens after an M&A or IPO, buyers said they generally hoped the founders would stay with them for many years. Often using re-vesting, earn-outs or shares of the acquiring company to incentivize them. Neville, from IBM, mentioned a security company they acquired whose founder is now the head of one of the largest IBM divisions.

In the case of IPOs, supposedly the ultimate “exit,” any block of shares sold by founders would face extreme scrutiny and might cause a price drop.

So who’s exiting during those deals? Investors (and not always).

Eventually, if the average age of a startup at exit is 8-10 years, the active duty period of founders (if not replaced in the meantime) extends even more. Better love the problem you’re solving, and your customers!

Thanks to speakers, participants and supporters of this Master Class series:

London: Frederic Rombaut (Seraphim Capital), Joe Tabberer (FirstBank), Chris Gilbert (Ubiquisys), Jonathan Keeling (Crowdcube), Fred Destin, Tony Fish (AMF Ventures, James Clark (London Stock Exchange), Denise Law (SGCIB).

Paris: Frederic Rombaut (Seraphim Capital), Manuel Gruson (Dassault Systemes), Pierre-Henri Chappaz (Rothschild Global Advisory), Christine Lambert-Goue (All Invest), Olivier Younes (EXPEN), Eric Carreel (Withings), Fabien Bardinet (Balyo), Xavier Lazarus (Elaia Partners), Pierre-Eric Leibovici(Daphni). Jean de La Rochebrochard (Kima Ventures), Jeremy Sartre (SmartAngels), Gwen Regina Tan (Entrepreneur First).

San Francisco: Natasha Ligai (Logitech), Matt Cutler (Cisco),Will Hawthorne, (CODE Advisors), Ryan Rzepecki (JUMP Bikes), Charles Huang (Guitar Hero), Jeff Thomas (Nasdaq), Shahin Farshchi (Lux Capital), Ammar Hanafi (Moment Ventures), Adam J. Epstein (Third Creek Advisors), Nathan Harding (EKSO Bionics), Kate Whitcomb, Anthony Marino and Ethan Haigh (SOSV).

New York: Todd Neville (IBM), George Patterson (HSBC), Ryan Rzepecki (JUMP Bikes), Aaron Kellner (SeedInvest), Jeremy Levine (Bessemer Venture Partners), Taylor Greene (Collaborative Fund), Adam Rothenberg (BoxGroup), Eli Curi (Fenwick & West), Ian Engstrand and Salil Gandhi (Goodwin), Warren Spar(Sparring Partners Capital), Duncan Turner, Vivian Law and Sheng Ge (SOSV).

Sokowatch closes $2 million seed round to modernize Africa’s B2B retail

Kenya based Sokowatch aims to shake up the supply chain market for Africa’s informal retailers.

The B2B e-commerce company closed a $2 million seed investment led by 4DX Ventures. Others to join the round were Village Global, Lynett Capital, Golden Palm Investments, and Outlierz  Ventures.

Sokowatch’s platform connects Africa’s informal retail stores directly to local and multinational suppliers—such as Unilever and Proctor and Gamble—by digitizing orders, delivery, and payments with the aim of reducing costs and increasing profit margins.

The term disrupt is used less frequently in African tech since startups are often entering new business spaces where there’s little to actually disrupt.

That’s not the case with Sokowatch, which sees price and productivity benefits to revamping existing supply chain structures for Africa’s informal retailers.

“With both manufacturers and the small shops, we’re becoming the connective layer between them, where previously you had multiple layers of middle-men from distributors, sub-distributors, to wholesalers,” Sokowatch founder and CEO Daniel Yu told TechCrunch.

“The cost of sourcing goods right now…we estimate we’re cutting that cost by about 20 percent [for] these shopkeepers,” he said

Quantifying the size and potential of Africa’s informal markets has captured the attention of economists and startups. GDP revisions in several African countries have revealed outdated statistical methods were missing billions of dollars in economic activity. And one estimate by The International Labor Organization places up to two-thirds of Sub-Saharan Africa’s non-agricultural employment in the informal economy.

On the number of small shops on the continent, Yu noted a lack of reliable numbers but cited a 2016 KPMG study pegging fast moving consumer goods spending in Nigeria alone at $41 billion annually. A portion of those goods move through the continent’s vast network of roadside markets, shops, and stands.

“There are millions of informal stores across Africa’s cities selling hundreds of billions worth of consumer goods every year,” said Yu.

These stores can use Sokowatch’s app on mobile phones to buy wares directly from large suppliers, arrange for transport, and make payments online. “Ordering on SMS or Android gets you free delivery of products to your store, on average, in about two hours,” said Yu.

Sokowatch generates revenues by earning “a margin on the goods that we’re selling to shopkeepers,” said Yu. On the supplier side, they also benefit from “aggregating demand…and getting bulk deals on the products that we distribute.”

The startup has delivered 100,000 orders to customers for “a few thousands shops,” according to Yu and company data.

The company recently launched a line of credit product to extend working capital loans to platform clients. With the $2 million round, Sokowatch—which currently operates in Kenya and Tanzania—plans to “expand to new markets in East Africa, as well as pilot additional value add services to the shops,” said Yu.

Peter Orth, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at lead investor 4DX Ventures, will join Sokowatch’s board of directors.

Yu also noted the possible big data benefits to informal African retail from Sokowatch. “If you are …selling into this market you have no clue who ultimately ends up with your product, even two layers down. That’s a big challenge,” he said.

“With us, not only do we know who’s buying the product, we know when they are buying the product, what they’re buying it in conjunction with, and the pricing.”

Hong Kong co-working startup Campfire pulls in $18M ahead of global expansion

WeWork may be doubling down on Asia, having initially focused its efforts on China, but that isn’t stopping local players from hatching ambitious expansion plans of their own.

One of those eying new markets is Hong Kong-based Campfire, which tries to stand out from the crowd with industry-focused spaces. Today, the startup announced it has raised an $18 million Series A ahead of planned expansions to three overseas countries: Singapore, Australia and the UK. It previously raised $6 million in March 2017.

Two-year-old Campfire’s business right now is in Hong Kong, where it has eight locations which include co-education, co-retail and co-living sites, as well as more standard co-working venues. In the case of its fashion-focused location, that even includes runway, photo studio, fabric facility and 3D printer.

The new capital comes from a trio of real estate firms in Hong Kong, they are Kwai Jung Group, Fast Global Holdings — which is a subsidiary of Rykadan Capital — and Sa Sa. In the latter case, Sa Sa is actually a cosmetics brand that operates across Greater China and parts of Southeast Asia, but the firm owns a significant retail footprint. That includes the building that houses Campfire’s ‘V Point’ space in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, so the relationship is already well advanced.

A Campfire representative confirmed that the capital is all provided up front and equity-based, in other words it is an investment in the business not specific locations or joint ventures, as is sometimes the case with investment deals in co-working firms.

Going beyond Hong Kong, the group is set to open its first overseas space in London (Shoreditch) with co-working locations in Melbourne, Sydney and Singapore planned thereafter. Further down the line, it is looking to move into “global gateway cities,” with the likes of Tokyo, Osaka, Bangkok and Brisbane among those that are on the list.

Co-working is sufficiently developed worldwide that most countries across Asia have a number of local players who compete with WeWork, the global leader valued at $35 billion, either now or else soon in the future. Some of the more developed of that bunch include Singapore’s JustCoEV Hive in Indonesia and China’s Ucommune. WeWork has actually been busy consolidating its position, having snapped up Spacemob in Southeast Asia and its main rival in China, Naked Hub.

Nigerian logistics startup Kobo360 accepted into YC, raises $1.2 million

When Nigerian logistics startup Kobo360 interviewed for Y-Combinator’s 2018 cohort a question stood out to founder Obi Ozor. “‘What’s holding you back from becoming a Unicorn?’ they asked. My answer was simple: ‘working capital,’” said Ozor.

Kobo360 was accepted into YC’s 2018 class and gained some working capital in the form of $1.2M in pre-seed funding round led by Western Technology Investment announced this week. Lagos based Verod Capital Management also joined to support Kobo360.

The startup — with an Uber -like app that connects Nigerian truckers to companies with freight needs — will use the funds to pay drivers online immediately after successful hauls.

Kobo360 is also launching the Kobo Wealth Investment Network, or KoboWIN—a crowd-invest, vehicle financing program. Through it Kobo drivers can finance new trucks through citizen investors and pay them back directly (with interest) over a 60 month period.

Ozor said Kobo360 created the platform because of limited vehicle finance options for truckers in Nigeria.  “We hope KoboWIN…will inject 20,000…[additional] trucks on the Kobo platform,” he told TechCrunch.

On Kobo360’s utility, “We give drivers the demand and technology to power their businesses,” said Ozor. “An average trucker will make $3,500 a month with our app. That’s middle class territory in Nigeria.”

Kobo360 has served 324 businesses, aggregated a fleet of 5480 drivers, and moved 37.6M kilograms of cargo since 2017, per company stats. Top clients include Honeywell, Olam, Unilever, and DHL.

Ozor previously headed Uber Nigeria, before teaming up with Ife Oyodeli to co-found Kobo360. They initially targeted 3PL for Nigeria’s e-commerce boom — namely Jumia (now Africa’s first unicorn) and Konga (recently purchased in a distressed acquisition).

“We started doing last mile delivery…but the volume just wasn’t there for us, so we decided to pivot…to an asset free model around long-haul trucking,” said Ozor.

Kobo360 was accepted into YC’s Summer ’18 batch—receiving $120K for 7 percent equity—and will present at an August Demo Day in front of YC Investors. “We were impressed by both Obi and Ife as founders.  They were growing quickly and had a strong vision for the company,” YC partner Tim Brady told TechCrunch.

Kobo360’s app currently coordinates 5000 trips a month, according to Ozor. He thinks the startup’s asset free, digital platform and business model can outpace traditional long-haul 3PL providers in Nigeria by handling more volume at cheaper prices.

“Owning trucks is just too difficult to manage. The best scalable model is to aggregate trucks,” he said. “We now have more trucks than providers like TSL and they’ve been here….years. By the end of this year we plan to have 20,000 trucks on our app—probably more than anyone on this continent.”

On price, Ozor named the ability of the Kobo360 app to more accurately and consistently coordinate return freight trips once truckers have dropped off first loads.

“Logistics in Nigeria have been priced based on the assumption drivers are going to run empty on the way back…When we now match freight with return trips, prices crash.”

Kobo360 is profitable, according to Ozor. Though he wouldn’t provide exact figures, he said reviewing the company’s financial performance was part of YC’s vetting process.

Logistics has become an active space in Africa’s tech sector with startup entrepreneurs connecting digital to delivery models. In Nigeria, Jumia founder Tunde Kehinde departed and founded Africa Courier Express. Startup Max.ng is wrapping an app around motorcycles as an e-delivery platform. Nairobi based Lori Systems has moved into digital coordination of trucking in East Africa. And U.S. based Zipline is working with the government of Rwanda and partner UPS to master commercial drone delivery of medical supplies on the continent.

Kobo360 will expand in Togo, Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, and Senegal. “We’ll be in Ghana this year and next year the other countries,” said Ozor.

In addition to KoboWIN, it will also add more driver training and safety programs.

“We are driver focused. Drivers are the key to our success. Even our app is driver focused,” said Ozor. Kobo360 will launch a new version of its app in Hausa and Pidgin this August, both local languages common to drivers.

“Execution is the key thing in logistics. It has to be reliable, affordable, and it has to be execution focused,” said Ozor. “If drivers are treated well, they are going to deliver things on time.”