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Berlin Brands Group commits $302M to acquire D2C and Amazon merchants

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If the rise of direct-to-consumer businesses has been one of the big e-commerce trends of the last decade, then the growth of startups raising huge rounds to consolidate D2C players, to bring more economies of scale to the model, has definitely been a related theme of the past year.

In the latest move, a startup out of Germany called the Berlin Brands Group has announced that it plans to invest €250 million (about $302 million at today’s rates) to buy up smaller companies and bring them into its fold.

While a lot of the company’s would-be competitors in the consolidation race are focusing primarily on the Amazon Marketplace — leaning on fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) to carry out the distribution and logistics — Peter Chaljawski, the founder and CEO, tells us that it’s a different story in its existing target market of Europe.

“In the M&A market, one big difference between the U.S. and Europe is that the latter is more fragmented,” he said. “In the U.S., D2C sellers do a lot on Amazon. In Europe, there are still lots of alternatives. And in some markets like France, consumers don’t even like Amazon.” This is in addition, of course, to selling directly to consumers and bypassing marketplaces altogether, an area that Chaljawski said will continue to be a big focus for BBG. In all, BBG today says it uses some 100 channels to sell its products.

BBG is not your typical e-commerce startup, in that up to now it’s managed to build a big and profitable business largely on its own steam. And despite being a big e-commerce player in Berlin, BBC has no connection to Rocket Internet, the famous incubator of e-commerce businesses founded in the city.

The $302 million earmarked for acquisitions is coming off the startup’s own balance sheet. And from what we understand, it’s also coming ahead of BBG raising a significant round of outside funding to continue its growth. Although BBG has raised money (of an undisclosed amount, per PitchBook) in the past, this would be its first significant equity round when it closes.

BBG itself has built its own profitable direct-to-consumer business from the ground up. Founded in 2005 first focused on audio equipment (Chaljawski had ambitions to be a DJ in a past life) it has some 14 brands today, covering 2,500 items, that it has hatched and grown itself, which it sells in 28 markets.

The conglomerate model that BBG has taken covers a variety of categories, mostly in consumer electronics (including audio gear, fitness equipment and home appliances), and are sold under a range of different brands like auna, Klarstein and Capital Sports. To date, it says it has sold more than 10 million products, and it is profitable, making €300 million (around $363 million) in revenues in 2020.

Its focus for new acquisitions will include more brands and products in garden, home and living goods, sports, electronics and household appliances, with targets generating anything from €500,000 to €30 million in revenues.

While BBG has mostly been about organic growth, it started taking its first foray into inorganic expansion last December, with the acquisition of home goods brand Sleepwise, which Chaljawski describes as making “a very nice blanket.”

The comfort of a nice blanket might come in handy. Despite its success to date, a number of challenges lie ahead for BBG.

First of these are competitors. BBG’s strategy shift and acquisition plans come at a time when consolidators in the space are starting to emerge, armed with fistfuls of dollars to consolidate smaller brands that have emerged with success on marketplaces like Amazon’s (in fact, primarily the Amazon marketplace) but perhaps without obvious paths to scaling.

They include the likes of Thrasio (which most recently raised $500 million in debt to use to buy companies), SellerX, Heyday, Heroes, Perch and more.

This story from December in the FT (before that most recent debt round of Thrasio’s) estimated that there has been at least $1 billion raised collectively by these companies to build out new online consumer empires based on this model.

The vision for all of them is very clear: they want to create the next Unilever, P&G, or Sony, and they are leveraging new economic models and technology to bring in manufacturing, logistics, economies of scale, sales analytics and new innovations in marketing to do it.

Another challenge is how successful and efficient a company, which has up to now taken a very deliberate and organic path, will be in integrating lots of new brands, with the cultures and business partnerships relationships that exist with those, in tow.

The third is the sourcing of quality brands themselves. As we’ve pointed out before, taking just Amazon as one example, there is a ton of junk sold there, including a whole industry of those who buy off wholesale sites and resell on Amazon, which is one reason why so many merchants sell what look like identical products in specific categories. These marketplace sellers leverage things like SEO and armies of reviews to get their products sifting to the top of huge piles of search results, and they can often sell well, even if they are not great buys for you the consumer. That means misleading signals for a potential consolidator looking for hot companies to snap up.

The balance between how marketplaces are leveraged versus how much brands and their owners try to build these things on their own will be an interesting one to watch in the coming years. Amazon and its ilk have only continued to grow and become more efficient, although this sometimes means they are too powerful rather than more useful for third parties:

On the other hand, we’re seeing another persistent theme to help them: the presence of startups and bigger companies continuing to make tools to help the smaller players stay in the game on their own terms. They include biggies like Shopify, but also newer players like GoSite, Shogun and Xentral.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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India’s Paytm turns Android smartphones into POS machines in merchants push

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Paytm said on Tuesday it is turning NFC-enabled Android smartphones into point-of-sale machines, as it looks to win more merchants in one of the world’s largest mobile payments markets.

A Paytm merchant partner will now be able to enable card acceptance feature from their Paytm Business app. Once activated, they will be able to process a transaction by tapping a plastic card to their phone.

Paytm Smart POS supports Visa, Mastercard, and Rupeek, the Indian startup said.

Existing payment devices in the market haven’t proven very successful in reaching small and medium sized businesses in India, most of which remain offline, said Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and chief executive of Paytm, at a virtual press conference today.

To win these merchants, Paytm has in recent years rolled out QR codes that work across several payment networks, and launched jukeboxes and other gadgets to make it easier for merchants to accept payments digitally.

With today’s move, said Sharma, “the obligation of buying a POS machine, too, is no longer needed.” The startup said that most new Android smartphone models support the NFC feature.

Paytm also unveiled the newer generation jukebox POS that looks similar to a QR placard. “The reason why merchants haven’t actively adopted many of the existing POS machines is that they are not comfortable with it,” said Dilip Asbe, head of payments body NPCI, at the virtual conference.

The Indian startup, which processed more than 1.2 billion transactions last month, said it will charge a small subscription fee to merchant partners for accessing either of the aforementioned payments services.

The move, which in many ways pits Paytm against Sequoia Capital-backed Pine Labs, a market leader in the POS category but a significantly smaller startup, demonstrates just how aggressively Paytm is expanding its payments platform to go after merchants.

“Just the way, mobile phones saw an evolution from featurephone to smartphone, we believe the merchant PoS market in India is at an inflexion point to evolve from the traditional (aka dumb-PoS) to Smart-PoS. Unlike traditional PoS, which only allows transactions from debit/credit-card, some of the features of a Smart-PoS are: GST compliant bill, scanner/printer, takes all payments including UPI, is Bluetooth enabled and could be customized for different merchants as per their needs. While currently the Fintech companies are offering these devices, we expect banks to catch-up eventually,” wrote analysts at Bank of America in a recent note to clients.

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Taipei-based Influenxio gets $2M from DCM Ventures for its “microinfluencer” marketing platform

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Influencer marketing startup Influenxio's team, with founder and CEO Allan Ko in the center

Influenxio’s team, with founder and chief executive officer Allan Ko in the center

“Microinfluencers” are gaining clout among marketers. Though they may have as little as a thousand followers, microinfluencers tend to focus on specific content and be seen as more engaging and trustworthy by their audience, said Allan Ko, founder and chief executive officer of Influenxio. The Taipei-based startup, which connects brands with Instagram microinfluencers through its online platform, announced today that it has closed $2 million in pre-Series A funding led by DCM Ventures, and is launching a new subscription plan.

Founded in 2018, Influenxio has now raised over $3 million in total, including from seed investor SparkLabs Taipei. It currently operates in Taiwan and Japan, where it has databases of 100,000 and 250,000 Instagram creators, respectively. So far, over 6,000 brands have registered on Influenxio’s platform, and it has been used to run over 1,000 campaigns.

Influenxio plans to use its new funding for hiring and product development. Influenxio’s new subscription plan is a relatively novel model for the field, so one of the startup’s goals is to prove that it works, Ko told TechCrunch. The company also plans to build out its Japanese platform and expand into more countries.

A screenshot of Influenxio's platform

A screenshot of Influenxio’s platform

Influenxio analyzes past campaigns, performance data and client reviews to improve its algorithms. Since the entire campaign creation process–from finding influencers to paying them–is performed through Influenxio, this allows it to gather a wide range of data to refine its technology, Ko told TechCrunch.

Influencers typically make about $35 to $40 USD for each campaign they participate in, and most of the brands the company works with focus on food (like restaurants), fashion, beauty or lifestyle services.

Before launching Influenxio, Ko spent 15 years working in the digital marketing field, serving as an account manager at Yahoo! and Microsoft, and then head of Hong Kong and Taiwan for Google’s online partnerships group. He wanted to create a startup that would combine what he had learned about digital marketing and make accessible to more businesses.

Large brands have used Influenxio to quickly generate marketing campaigns for special occasions like Mother’s Day or Christmas. For example, one advertiser in Taiwan used Influenxio to hire almost 200 influencers in one week, who were asked to test and post about their products, and some of Influenxio’s highest profile clients include Shiseido, Shopee, iHerb and KKBox.

But the majority of Influenxio’s clients (about 80% to 90%) are small- to medium-sized businesses, and Ko said they usually create multiple campaigns to build brand awareness over time, working with a few influencers a month.

Influenxio’s new subscription plan, which costs less than $100 USD a month and is launching first in Taiwan before rolling out to other markets, was created for them. “The first year we launched the platform, we found small businesses want experts and advice,” said Ko. Many don’t have marketing managers, so Influenxio’s subscription plan automatically matches them with new influencers each month and provides them with analytics so they can see how well campaigns are performing.

Influenxio is among a growing number of startups that are tapping into the “microinfluencer economy,” with others including AspireIQ, Upfluence and Grin.

Ko said Influenxio’s biggest difference is its focus on small businesses, and serving as a one-stop marketplace for influencer campaigns. “The important thing for our platform is that it needs to be very easy and simple,” he added. “We spent a lot of time on the execution and details to make it smoother on the advertiser side. For the influencer side, we try to make it more convenient. For example, the way they receive money, our goal is to also make it easy.”

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Kia’s electric vehicle plans take shape with EV6 teaser, new naming strategy

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Kia started the year by dropping “motor company” from its corporate name and revealing a new logo and slogan as part of Plan S, a strategy to shift its business away from internal combustion engines and towards EVs, mobility services and autonomous vehicle technology.

Now, the South Korean automaker is starting to share more details of the first vehicle that will come out of Plan S. Kia released Tuesday several teaser images of the EV6, its first dedicated battery-electric vehicle built on its new Electric-Global Modular Platform, or E-GMP platform. This platform is shared with Hyundai and is the underlying foundation of the new Hyundai Ioniq 5 compact crossover.

These are teasers and so the vehicle isn’t shown in full. But even with the limited view enough design features are visible to begin to understand what Kia’s design language means for the EV6 and its other future electric vehicles.

The EV6 is a four-door crossover, which isn’t a surprise considering the popularity of such vehicles in the U.S. The low front end moves up into a roofline that is reminiscent of a coupe. The LED headlights have a segmented pattern and the traditional grille found on internal combustion engine vehicles is gone.

Kia teases EV6

Image credits: Kia

The company also revealed a new naming scheme to help consumers easily identify the EVs in its lineup. Kia said its new dedicated battery electric vehicles will all start with the “EV” prefix. A number will follow “EV” to indicate the vehicle’s position the line-up. That puts the EV6 somewhere in the middle of its upcoming lineup.

Kia said the EV6 will make its world premiere during the first quarter of 2021.

“Our aim is to design the physical experience of our brand and to create bold, original and inventive electric vehicles,” Karim Habib, senior vice president and head of Kia Global Design Center, said in a statement.

Kia’s strategy is more ambitious though than creating bold, original and inventive electric vehicles. The company said last year that it wanted to become a pioneer in the age of EVs, a brand beloved by the millennial generation and Z generation and a symbol of challenge and innovation. Kia has placed sales and product goals behind those aspirational objectives, including the launch of 11 EVs by 2025 that will give it a 6.6% global EV market share, selling 500,000 electric vehicles annually by 2026, and offering customized purpose-built electric vehicles for corporate customers.

Image credits: Kia

It’s also putting some capital behind the effort, to the tune of 29 trillion won (US $25 billion) by the end of 2025.  Kia said its targeting a 6% operating profit margin and 10.6% return on equity (ROE) ratio during this time period.

The EV6 is the first product of Plan S, a vehicle that will show investors and consumers if Kia’s grand plans are achievable. In other words, the EV6 is important for Kia.

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