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Nigeria’s Cowrywise raises $3M pre-Series A to scale its wealth management platform

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Cowrywise, a Nigerian fintech startup that offers digital wealth management and financial planning solutions, has raised $3 million in pre-Series A funding. Quona Capital led the round as Tsadik Foundation, Gumroad CEO Sahil Lavingia, and a syndicate of Nigerian angel investors locally and in the diaspora participated. The company previously raised more than $500,000 through a combination of equity financing and grants.

The idea for Cowrywise came when CEO Razaq Ahmed was an investment analyst with Meristem covering equities and making recommendations to retail and wealth management clients. He noticed that existing investment management firms in the country focused on the top 1 percent. They couldn’t scale investment products to millions of Nigerians primarily due to their restricting size.

Banks, though, have been able to make progress on this front when compared to investment firms. They expanded heavily in the mid and late 2000s to accumulate the branch networks they have today where there are about 45 million unique accounts in Nigeria.

But over the years, the quality of bank services in terms of savings and investments has drastically reduced. With interest rates hovering around 3-5% per annum, what Nigerians are now familiar with is to send and receive money via their bank accounts, and use debit cards for withdrawals leaving the market still underserved when it comes to investment products.

For this reason, Ahmed, alongside Edward Popoola as CTO, founded Cowrywise in 2017 to solve this problem. With Cowrywise, they hoped to democratise access to savings and investment products to the growing demography of underserved Nigerian millennials and the middle class. 

“Wealth management had been strange to many Nigerians because the existing players were not built for the mass market. That has always been a problem we felt required a solution,” Ahmed told TechCrunch.

When they launched, the founders wanted to leverage the telecom industry’s reach to drive its investment products to millions of subscribers. But it didn’t turn out as planned, as the project became expensive to undertake and also, the telcos requested cutthroat prices and commissions. 

Cowrywise founders (Edward Popoola and Razaq Ahmed)

The company switched focus, deciding to build upon existing payment infrastructure companies like Flutterwave and Paystack. The first facet of products launched to the market were savings-related products backed by fixed income instruments like treasury bills. Ahmed claims that these products yield better interests at 10%-15%, more substantial than what banks offered.

Following that was the introduction of its mutual funds’ products. Currently, the company has 19 different mutual funds and at least 20% of the total mutual funds in the country are listed on its platform. Ahmed claims this is the largest portfolio of mutual funds a single entity has in the country.

These assets cut across five investment partners, and they allow users to save and invest with as little as ₦100 ($0.25). The partners include United Capital Asset Management, Meristem Wealth Management, Afrinvest Wealth Management, ARM Investment Managers and Lotus Capital. Cowrywise indirectly charges customers for this service and splits the fee with the mutual fund partners but the CEO doesn’t disclose how much. 

Also, the four-year-old company takes into account the needs of different demographics and religious background, which Ahmed asserts is as a result of an understanding with the mutual fund partners. 

“Our mutual fund partners clearly recognize the value of being part of an inclusive digital platform that allows retail investors to invest regardless of faith or financial status,” he said. 

The YC alum and Catalyst Fund company also offers advisory services and recommends different funds to customers based on their risk appetite and spending power.

Image Credits: Cowrywise

But building trust with users has not always been smooth for the company. It’s an issue Ahmed explains Cowrywise has had to deal with via transparency and outstanding service delivery.

For instance, one of Cowrywise’s darkest days came last September when a customer took to Twitter to complain about its lack of communication in reported stolen funds from her account. In response, Cowrywise apologised for the lapse in communication, acted on the request, and promised to do better.

“Service delivery has helped us bridge that trust gap to a huge extent, and I feel it’s reflected in the user growth and adoption we’ve experienced. Trust was a major issue we faced but right now, we’re crossing that bridge pretty well,” the CEO said.

About that, Cowrywise has more than 220,000 users. In its first year, it had just 2,000 users. Similarly, to highlight the journey ahead for the company, there are only half a million Nigerians actively investing in mutual funds. When compared to the total number of active bank accounts in the country of more than 40 million, it is obvious Cowrywise still has room to grow in the $3 billion market.

Cowrywise’s unique approach to wealth management is one reason why Quona Capital led the round according to partner Johan Bosini. The VC firm, known to back fintech and retail enablers like SA-based Lulalend and Yoco, and Kenya’s Sokowatch, is making its first foray into the Nigerian market with Cowrywise.

“Razaq, Edward, and the Cowrywise team are providing everyday Nigerians with easy access to powerful and flexible wealth-generating tools that have typically been reserved for people who are already wealthy,” said Bosini to TechCrunch. “In a market of 200 million people, we think this will be very impactful for individuals to have more control over their financial future.”

The company hopes to increase its customer base, and the new infusion will be critical to that. According to the company, the investment will also expand Cowrywise’s product offerings, support more fund managers in Nigeria and build out its investment management infrastructure.

Cowrywise is one of the many wealth tech startups on the continent. There are startups with comparable business models like Nigeria’s Piggyvest and others are Robinhood-esque platforms like Egypt’s Thndr and Nigeria’s Bamboo, Trove, Risevest and Chaka. Cowrywise’s investment which is the largest publicized round at this stage brings in much-needed validation for this segment of fintech startups that are starting to take off.

In the same vein, despite a slow start to a year which has seen Africa’s agritech and cleantech sectors take the lion’s share of investments, we might see fintech startups picking up the kind of pace we’ve been accustomed to that has made them dominate VC funding for the past couple of years.

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EV rivals Tesla, Rivian unite to target direct sales legislation

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Tesla, Rivian, Lordstown Motors and Lucid Motors — potential rivals in the burgeoning EV market — are working together to pass laws that would allow direct sales in at least eight states with another batch of proposed legislation likely being introduced this year.

Passage of such legislation would clear the way for EV giants like Tesla, along with newcomers Lucid and Rivian, which have yet to bring a vehicle to market, to sell directly to consumers. However, Tesla’s cooperation could also cost the company its monopoly on direct sales in some states.

Tesla and a growing number of new EV companies have a different business model than legacy automakers like GM, Ford and Stellantis. Tesla sells vehicles through their own branded stores — similar to how Apple sells its products — and do not have franchised dealerships. The direct sales model has attracted the ire of auto dealers, who benefit from long-established rules in all 50 states that prevent manufacturers with existing franchisees from opening their own dealerships to compete with them. Tesla and other allies argue that because they don’t have franchise dealers, they should be allowed to sell directly to consumers.

“We support our other EV-only manufacturers and their desires to sell direct-to-consumers, to invest, to create jobs and to do that unfettered as we are allowed,” Thad Kurowski, senior policy manager at Tesla, said while testifying in the state of Washington during the House’s Consumer Protection and Business Committee. Washington is one of many states where such legislation is being considered. Tesla has six retail locations in the state.

Similar legislation is being considered in Connecticut, Nebraska, Georgia, New York, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Nevada. Some of these states ban all EV manufacturers from directly selling to customers; some only permit Tesla, at the exclusion of other companies, but cap the number of retail stores it can open.

It’s a rare moment of cooperation for EV manufacturers, companies that must contend not only with each other but with legacy automakers for market share. Relations between the companies have not always been so copacetic: Tesla last July filed a lawsuit against Rivian alleging theft of trade secrets and talent poaching. Rivian responded that two of the three claims in the case were nothing more than an attempt to smear its reputation.

Tesla is a veteran of battles with state legislatures over direct sales. At least a dozen states, including Arizona, Colorado and Utah have reversed bans that prevented Tesla from selling directly to consumers either through new legislation or via the courts.

Michigan, home to major automakers GM and Ford, has been a longtime battleground.

Former Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill in 2014 that was initiated and backed by the Michigan Automobile Dealers Association, banning Tesla from selling directly to consumers in the state. Two years later, Tesla sued the state of Michigan when it denied Tesla a dealership license. The Michigan Legislature last December considered a bill that would have banned all direct sales except for Tesla, an arrangement that allowed the automaker to deliver cars to customers, so long as the vehicle sale and title transfer didn’t occur in the state. That special exception for Tesla was removed from the proposed legislation, a move that would have threatened what little progress it had in the state. At the end, though, the legislation died, leaving Tesla’s arrangement intact.

Lucid is leading the charge in some states where direct sales legislation is being considered, according to Daniel Witt, who worked at Tesla before joining the new EV entrant as a public policy lead. Witt emphasized the bills are the result of efforts from the coalition of EV companies, grassroots lobbying from EV owners and EV enthusiasts and consumer groups. The legislation has also found support from environmental and clean energy groups, which argue that consumer choice and ease of access are key to helping people transition away from internal combustion engine cars.

“Any situation where the door got closed behind Tesla was not a matter of trying to gain a market advantage so much as it was just a product of the negotiations in a given legislature,” Witt said. “By and large, whether it’s New York, or Washington or Connecticut, we’re all rowing in the same direction.”

In a statement to TechCrunch, the Washington State Auto Dealers Association said franchised dealers support the transition toward zero-emission vehicles and want to sell them at their locations. But it said the direct sale bill is a “battle of Main Street vs. Wall Street.”

“Electric vehicle manufacturers perpetuate [the] myth of the middleman when the reality is that they would bear the same costs if they built their own stores, but would ship their revenue to their billionaire investors out of state after the sale is made instead of reinvesting in the community,” the group said.

The organization pointed out that Rivian has garnered $500 million in funding from Ford.

“What would stop Ford from abandoning its dealer network, and shifting the profits dealers generate for the company out of Ford and into greater ownership of Rivian? Or GM from spinning off an EV subsidiary?” the group said in its statement.

EV manufacturers have a long legislative road ahead of them. Bills generally must clear legislative committees and receive majority votes from both the House and Senate before being sent to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.

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Netflix launches ‘Fast Laughs,’ a TikTok-like feed of funny videos

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Late last year, Netflix began experimenting with a new TikTok-like feed of funny videos inside its mobile app, which it called “Fast Laughs.” Today, the company announced the new feature is now rolling out on iOS, allowing users to watch, react, or share the short clips as well as add the show or movie to your Netflix watchlist. You can also push a “Play” button to start watching the program immediately.

At launch, the feature will include short clips from Netflix’s comedy catalog, including films like “Murder Mystery,” series like “Big Mouth,” sitcoms like “The Crew,” as well as snippets from stand-up comedians like Kevin Hart and Ali Wong.

Netflix confirmed to TechCrunch the feature will tap into its full catalog, not just its own original programs. However, the company couldn’t says how many total shows or movies would be featured in the new experience.

Image Credits: Netflix

The new feature has been given prominent placement in the Netflix app, where it’s accessible from the bottom navigation menu on its own tab, next to “Coming Soon.” This is no small experiment, then — but rather an indication of how successful the early tests of the “Fast Laughs” feature must have been in terms of engaging users and connecting them to Netflix content.

This is not the first time Netflix has borrowed concepts from social media to help users discover new shows or movies to watch in its app. A few years ago, Netflix introduced its own short-form video “Stories” feature, called Previews, for example. But times have changed. Now users are drawn to short-form vertical video feeds, like those popularized by TikTok.

Image Credits: Netflix

“Fast Laughs” heavily borrows from the TikTok format, as its feed also features full-screen videos that you can swipe through vertically, and places the engagement buttons on the right side of the screen. These buttons let you react with an “LOL” (crying/laughing) emoji to the clip or share it via iMessage or social media apps, like WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter. You can also start watch the show immediately or save it for later viewing by adding it to “My List.”

During tests, “Fast Laughs” clips ranged in length anywhere from 15 to 45 seconds. Today, Netflix says there’s no exact clip length for these video snippets.

Image Credits: Netflix

The company is positioning the feature as a discovery tool.

“We wanted to give members a fun, fast, and intuitive way to discover our catalog by letting these comedic moments across genres speak for themselves in a mobile-native, full screen experience,” said Product Designer Kim Ho, previously worked on product design at both Facebook, Instacart, and Coin. “We worked hard to cut to just what was necessary in an intentional and minimalist UI design, from the transparent tab bar to ways to react in the moment (‘LOL’) and plan their next laugh by adding to their list,” she added.

But though “Fast Laughs” is focused on finding new things to watch, the feature could, in fact, help Netflix compete with TikTok in terms of time spent on mobile devices, as it caters to the growing demand for shorter, more “snackable” video content.

Netflix says the feature is rolling out now to iOS and will begin testing on Android in the months to come.

 

 

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First impressions of AppLovin’s IPO filing

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AppLovin released its S-1 filing yesterday, bringing the Palo Alto-based mobile app-focused software company a step closer to joining the public markets.

The business results detailed in the document are generally impressive. While some companies going public in recent months have detailed pandemic-fueled growth to lean against or membership in a sector hotter than individual results, AppLovin’s filing tells the story of a rapidly growing company that has managed to scale adjusted profit as it has grown.

And now, with annual revenue north of $1 billion, AppLovin is also a very large company, meaning that its IPO will be widely watched.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. Read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


So this morning we’re rifling through its IPO filing and yanking out what matters as we add one more name to our IPO lists.

The Exchange has a lengthy list of non-IPO topics that we’d like to get to. If everyone could stop going public for a few days, we’d love to write about something else! OK, let’s get into it!

Most of the news is good

As a short introduction, the company’s products are designed to help developers find users and monetize their apps. And AppLovin has its own in-house suite of mobile apps, what its S-1 calls a “globally diversified portfolio of over 200 free-to-play mobile games run by 12 studios.” Those apps have 32 million global daily actives, the document added.

It’s a pretty neat company to dig into if you’re into mobile apps at all. Regardless, what we care about today are its numbers. So let’s talk growth, revenue quality, profits, cash consumption and capital structure. Most of the news is good, even if there are some downsides to AppLovin’s capital structure.

Recall that KKR bought a chunk of AppLovin back in mid-2018 at a valuation of around $2 billion. That number appears comically low, given that the company posted $483.4 million in revenue that year, a figure that it roughly doubled in 2019 to $994.1 million. Growth slowed in percentage terms in 2020, when AppLovin saw total revenues of $1.45 billion, though the company managed similar growth in gross-dollar terms.

In percentage terms, AppLovin grew 106% from 2018 to 2019, and 46% from 2019 to 2020. How KKR got to buy into the company at 4x revenues when it was growing at 100% is not clear.

The company is growing well, but is AppLovin accreting revenue of high quality? Yes, but we need to scrape some grime off the numbers to understand them. Turning to the company’s yearly results, AppLovin’s cost of revenue rose steadily as a percentage of revenue from 2018 to 2020. Indeed, the numbers went from 11% in 2018 to 24% in 2019 and 38% in 2020. That’s an awful progression, and if we lacked more information we’d posit that the company’s overall revenue quality was sharply declining.

It’s not that bad. There’s about $1 million in share-based compensation inside the 2020 cost of revenue figure and $228.3 million of “amortization expense related to acquired intangibles.” If we yank out those from the cost-of-revenue line item, AppLovin’s gross margin for 2020 grows from 62% to 77.5%. That’s much better.

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