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Amazon, Google pay the piper

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The events of this week perfectly encapsulate the variety of worker and workplace-related struggles happening in the tech industry. Google settled some discrimination allegations with the Department of Labor, Amazon agreed to settle a complaint with the FTC over stolen tips from Flex workers and the Alphabet Workers Union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. It was quite the week so let’s get to it.

Grocery delivery startup Dumpling faces backlash

Dumpling workers said this week they have been misled by the Instacart alternative’s business model, Vice reported. Additionally, workers told Vice the company shut down their Facebook post where they were protesting pay changes.

From Vice:

But Dumpling is now in hot water with many of the gig workers on its platform, which it calls “business owners.” These business owners say the company has misled them about how much autonomy and control they’d have on the platform, and has shut down their Facebook group after workers on the platform spoke out against a series of changes the company made to its pay model in the latter half of 2020. When Dumpling closed the Facebook group, it said the group “ha[d]n’t lived up to its positive intent.” 

Alpha Global walks back its announcement

Remember when Alpha Global announced an alliance of Alphabet workers around the world, including those affiliated with the recently-formed Alphabet Workers Union in the U.S.? Well, it turns out that wasn’t entirely true. Alpha Global has since issued a revised statement clarifying it did not have buy-in from AWU.

In our announcement of the Alpha Global alliance, UNI mistakenly included CODE-CWA and the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) as members of the Alpha Global Alliance and a quote from AWU Executive Chair Parul Koul, without receiving proper authorization from CWA, the Alphabet Workers Union’s elected Executive Council, or Ms. Koul. We take full responsibility and have addressed this situation to prevent it from happening again.

But by the time Alpha Global made the announcement, the damage had already been done, according to The Verge. Some AWU members expressed their concerns with the way things went down, and some are now pushing to disassociate from the Communications Workers of America. 

It’s a whole thing that you can read more about here.

Alphabet Workers Union files complaint with NLRB

In a filing with the National Labor Union, AWU alleged Google vendor Adecco violated the law by trying to silence employees. The complaint alleges employees were punished for discussing their pay. The complaint was filed against both Adecco and Google

Google CEO meets with HBCUs

In light of recent departures of Black leaders at Google, CEO Sundar Pichai met with five HBCUs last Friday. The meeting itself was relatively uneventful — they reportedly didn’t even talk about the allegations from Dr. Timnit Gebru and April Curley — but HBCUs and Google provided the following joint-statement to CNN:

“We are all encouraged about the future partnership. The meeting paved the way for a more substantive partnership in a number of areas, from increased hiring to capacity building efforts that will increase the pipeline of tech talent from HBCUs.”

Speaking of Dr. Gebru, Google’s lead of the ethical AI team, Margaret Mitchell, posted an email she sent to Google pertaining to Gebru’s exit.

Google settles discrimination allegations with DOL

Google agreed to pay $2.59 million to more than 5,500 current employees and former job applicants as part of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Labor over allegations of systemic discrimination as it relates to compensation and hiring. 

Google also agreed to reserve $250,000 a year for the next five years to address any potential pay equity adjustments that may come up. That brings Google’s total financial commitment to $3.8 million — a drop in the bucket for the company, whose parent company Alphabet has a market cap of $1.28 trillion.

The settlement comes after the DOL’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs found pay disparities affecting female software engineers at Google’s offices in Mountain View, as well as in offices in Seattle and Kirkland, Washington. The OFCCP also found differences in hiring rates that “disadvantaged female and Asian applicants” for engineers roles at Google’s locations in San Francisco, Sunnyvale and Kirkland.

Two Google workers quit to show solidarity

Vinesh Kannan, a software engineer, quit Google in light of Dr. Timnit Gebru and April Curley’s negative experiences at the company. 

In a tweet, Kannan said what they experienced “crossed a personal red line I wrote down when I started the job. I know I gained a lot from Google, but I also gained a lot from both of their work, and they were wronged.”

David Baker, who was a director focused on user safety, left Google last month, saying Gebru’s departure “extinguished my desire to continue as a Googler,” according to Reuters.

Amazon agreed to pay $61.7 million to settle FTC complaint over stolen tips from Flex workers

Amazon will pay $61.7 million to compensate the drivers who loss out on the tips they were owed. 

From TC’s Sarah Perez:

According to the complaint against Amazon and its subsidiary Amazon Logistics, the company had advertised that it paid 100% of tips to drivers. But in reality, Amazon used the customer tips to cover the difference after it lowered the hourly rate — a change it didn’t inform drivers about, the complaint says.

The FTC also alleged that Amazon didn’t stop this behavior until it became aware of the FTC investigation in 2019.

Amazon union vote on the horizon

Despite Amazon’s motion to postpone the Bessemer, Alabama union election, the National Labor Relations Board on Friday denied the company’s request. The election will go as planned via mail-in ballots beginning on Monday, February 8. 

Context: Amazon has been vocally anti-union, with a website dedicated to convincing workers not to unionize, as well as fliers posted inside the workplace — even in bathroom stalls, according to The Washington Post.

Workers protest future Amazon fulfillment center

Over in Oxnard, Calif., workers protested at the site of a future Amazon fulfillment center, disrupting the construction efforts, Vice reported. The strike aimed to challenge the fact that Amazon contractor, Building Zone Industries, hired non-union workers from out of the state for the job. There were reportedly more than 100 people who participated in the strike and refused to cross the picket line to work on the project.

CA Supreme Court rejects lawsuit challenging Prop 22

The California Supreme Court shot down the lawsuit filed by a group of rideshare drivers in California and the Service Employees International Union that alleged Proposition 22 violates the state’s constitution.

“We are disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear our case, but make no mistake: we are not deterred in our fight to win a livable wage and basic rights,” Hector Castellanos, a plaintiff in the case, said in a statement. “We will consider every option available to protect California workers from attempts by companies like Uber and Lyft to subvert our democracy and attack our rights in order to improve their bottom lines.”

The suit argued Prop 22 makes it harder for the state’s legislature to create and enforce a workers’ compensation system for gig workers. It also argues Prop 22 violates the rule that limits ballot measures to a single issue, as well as unconstitutionally defines what would count as an amendment to the measure. As it stands today, Prop 22 requires a seven-eighths legislative supermajority in order to amend the measure.

Don’t miss TC Sessions: Justice

I’m spearheading an upcoming virtual event, TC Sessions: Justice, that’s going to dive into all of these topics. You’ll be able to hear from speakers like AWU Executive Chair Parul Koul, former Amazon warehouse worker Christian Smalls, Uber Chief Diversity Officer Bo Young Lee, Backstage Capital founder and Managing Partner Arlan Hamilton and others.

Tickets are just $5 and you can snag yours here.

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

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6 Oslo VCs discuss 2021 trends, deal flow and regional opportunities

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The Nordic countries make up just 4% of Europe’s total population, but they account for a significant amount of venture capital investment.

That said, Norway’s VC community has been somewhat dormant for a while. The country makes far too much money from oil, giving it one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds and a large system of socialized support. Not a bad thing, but as a result, there are few “hungry” tech entrepreneurs.

High-profile players like Northzone and Creandum did well with early entries into Spotify and Klarna, among others, and now Norway is catching up with the rest of the European hubs. Among the trends our survey respondents identified were e-commerce, blockchain and crypto, healthtech, energy, mobility and climate.

Investments highlighted included Fairown, Kahoot, Spacemaker, Cognite, Pexip, PortalOne, Dignio, Speiz, Plaace, Glint Solar, variable.co and Nomono. Local investors tend to invest 50% to 90% of their fund into local startups, “but we do look at deal flow in all Nordic countries,” said one.


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On the horizon, there is hope for an increased focus on mental health and wellness from organizations, the press and the government; many also celebrated the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, bitcoin’s rise and a new occupant in the White House.

Green shoots of recovery are coming from portfolio revenue growth, exits and IPOs. One investors we spoke to said Norway is “becoming a major hub, with scale-ups and international capital incoming much faster these days.”

Here’s who responded to our survey:


Sean Percival, managing partner, Spring Capital

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
E-commerce.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Fairown.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Martech.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Not just COVID-proof but services that thrive in COVID times.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
In Norway, sustainability-focused companies. Lots of good ideas but little revenue growth proven so far.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
50% Norway, 50% Nordic/Baltic.

Which industries in your city and region seem well positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Norway does video tech well.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Strong B2B, weak B2C, lots of SDG focus.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
We are not so hard hit in Norway, so Oslo will likely not see much exodus. It’s still the best place to build a company in this country. Although personally I moved to a small village and don’t see myself moving back to Oslo.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
E-commerce is booming here post-COVID, where before it was rather weak.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Our portfolio is heavy on SaaS, which has weathered things well. So for our founders, it’s mostly about keeping churn-and-burn rates low to survive.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
In some cases yes, including our e-commerce SaaS companies and my recent Bitcoin exchange investment (MiraiEx).

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
Bitcoin’s rise and new open banking solutions have shown the world’s financial engines are still pushing forward. Everything is being built with less friction these days. We’re trying to highlight the movers and shakers who outsiders might not know. Iterate is a cool company builder company flying under the radar. Just had their first big investment success/cash out with a company called Porterbuddy.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
Norway is slowing, becoming a major hub with scale-ups and international capital incoming much faster these days (recent investments from SoftBank and Founders fund, for example).

Espen Malmo, founding partner, Skyfall Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Skyfall focuses on software companies, marketplaces and hardware companies with a recurring software revenue bundle. We are really excited about the blockchain and cryptocurrency space. Our team has been involved and invested in crypto since 2012, so we’ve been excited about the industry for a long time. We have invested in two great companies in the sector, the blockchain analytics tool Nansen.ai and the cryptocurrency exchange MiraiEx. We also love embedded commerce and social commerce, which we think will boost the more independent long tail of e-commerce in the years to come. Our portfolio company Outshifter is positioned well to utilize this trend.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
It is always hard to pick favorites since we are excited about all our investments, but Nomono is one that really excites us. Nomono is a software and hardware solution to capture and intelligently process voice recordings and spatial audio. The solution enables podcasters to edit their recordings with the click of a button, as a sort of digital audio technician in your pocket.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
This is super hard to pinpoint and it is really challenging to label an industry as overlooked. Bioinformatics is maybe a little bit overlooked in Norway, but I don’t feel that is the case globally. Also, I think the pure B2B SaaS focus of a lot of VC funds makes it harder than necessary to get funding for hardware companies and companies with a rundle business model, even though hardware revenues bundled with recurring software revenues can create extraordinary outcomes due to high order values and strong lock-in effects.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
We invest in strong technical founders solving big problems in markets ripe for change. We usually prefer that the company has a prototype or beta of their solution and some initial market traction.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Both micromobility and telemedicine seem very crowded at this point, and we believe the current market leaders in these sectors will become the winners. I think it will be very hard to enter this space as a new startup at this moment in time.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We have a Nordic investment mandate, but we primarily focus on Norway as we are a Norwegian pre-seed/seed fund and have our competitive insight, network and brand here in Norway. So more than 50% in Norway, but we do look at deal flow in all Nordic countries.

Which industries in your city and region seem well positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Norway has a great track record within the video conferencing and audio industry. After Cisco bought Tandberg, a world-leading video conferencing company, for $3.3 billion in 2010, Video Valley (the area of Lysaker right outside of Oslo) has churned out a lot of successful companies within the space. For example, Acano (acquired by Cisco for $700 million), Pexip (IPO’ed, now valued at $1.4 billion) and Huddly (IPO’ed, now valued at $0.5 billion). From our own portfolio, both Nomono and Oivi are started by serial entrepreneurs with track records from successful Video Valley companies. Also, Norway is by far the leading country globally in adoption of electric vehicles per capita, and today over 50% of all new cars bought are electrical. This means that Norway is a great playing field for startups piggybacking on the EV revolution and also the green revolution in general. The EV home charger Easee is a company to watch.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Norway is a country where you get access to a highly educated and technically skilled workforce that is proficient in English, and the valuation of the companies is well below the levels you see in the U.S., or even in Sweden. I think Norway is a country to watch, but I obviously also believe that all the Nordic countries will continue to punch well above their “weight class” in the years to come.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Yes, the acceptance of working remotely will democratize the startup ecosystem globally. We should see a relative decrease in growth in the traditional hubs of Silicon Valley/SF, Beijing, London, Berlin and so on, compared to a relative increase in companies formed and managed “in the cloud.” We already have one such company in our portfolio, Nansen.ai, which truly is distributed across the world, “in the cloud,” and has been so from day one.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
We do not invest in sectors that have been hit directly by the pandemic, so we have been lucky in that way.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
No, we have in many ways been affected positively by COVID-19 as we have major investments in companies that are working with remote work, home delivery, e-commerce, cryptocurrencies and so on. In general, technology looks like the winning category during this pandemic, and I believe that will continue.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
As answered above, a lot of our companies are actually performing better than usual amid COVID.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
The decline in infections locally and the rollout of the COVID vaccines. Also, Trump leaving the Oval Office. I don’t think I would have managed four more years with him in the spotlight, inciting hatred and nonsense on Twitter.

Who are key startup people you see creating success locally, whether investors, founders or even other types of startup ecosystems roles like lawyers, designers, growth experts, etc. We’re trying to highlight the movers and shakers who outsiders might not know.
Yes, Johan Brand, co-founder of Kahoot and now an angel investor.

Kjetil Holmefjord, partner, StartupLab

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Sector agnostic. Personally interested in climate.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Latest one announced: Variable.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now? What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Positive impact, fast team, big returns.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
100% Norway.

Which industries in your city and region seem well positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Video, health, climate.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Getting better every day.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Increase but maybe not a surge.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Uncertain.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
More international competition for investment opportunities.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
Vaccine news.

Anne Solhaug Tutar, partner, Antler

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
We focus on technology companies and are industry agnostic in general, but in Oslo we have a particular focus on startups within the energy, property and mobility sector.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Speiz, Plaace and Glint Solar are a few examples.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Absolutely! We love any company that removes friction and focuses on solving real problems. Very often we see that the best companies are started by founders that have directly been impacted by an inefficiency or problem themselves, and later dedicate their lives to fixing it. Those founders will go above and beyond, and work relentlessly to understand their customers’ needs. We will see a lot of new opportunities from decentralized finance and a shift to a truly global economy where borders and barriers will be surpassed with smart technology.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
The most important factor for any investment we make: a very strong co-founder team. Beyond that, a thoroughly validated business idea and model, a concept that has the potential to scale, traction; rapid growth week over week and founders solving a real problem and not a made-up problem.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
We have a decade behind us of incremental innovations. In the next 10 to 20 years, we will see huge leaps and groundbreaking new technologies. Lots of current small improvement solutions will be replaced by technologies that are dramatically changing the way we live, work, collaborate and act.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We can invest anywhere, but the Oslo branch typically invests in locally established companies. I’d say 90%.

Which industries in your city and region seem well positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Our focus in Norway says a lot about the industries we think have potential for disruption and where Norway holds a particularly strong position; energy, property and mobility.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Compared to other locations, we see that startups based out of Oslo are typically cheaper than in other parts of the world. Investors that are able to identify the right founders can make great investments in Norway. At the same time, Norwegian founders would benefit from more investors with an international focus. The ecosystem of investors and accelerators is rapidly growing in Oslo, and with more and more successful local startups we have a great environment set up for breeding more great companies going forward. We’re very bullish on what will come out of Oslo over the next few years.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Generally we experience two simultaneous trends: More talent being freed up from their previous engagements and more uncertainty, with founders being more on the fence about making the leap. We haven’t made observations of this being connected to specific cities or areas yet.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
I’m not sure it’s wise to develop completely new businesses based on opportunities from COVID only; rather, COVID can, timing-wise, really spark the launch or growth for some and significantly slow down the growth pace for others.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
We invest as per normal and see that there is still a lot of capital ready to be deployed in Norway. Our companies have received a lot of soft funding from government initiatives, which is a huge and highly appreciated help to our portfolio companies. For our startups, and most others, the advice is always to keep the burn rate at manageable levels during this time of extra uncertainty, and plan the fundraising strategy accordingly. Otherwise, it’s never been more important to be lean and agile. The founders that are able to navigate well in a context with lots of uncertainty can do really well in the current climate!

Daniel Holth Larsen, principal, Investinor

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Resource efficiency, healthier lifestyles, internet of behaviors, how we work and learn.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Dignio (SaaS/medtech).

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Forestry technology; a lot of focus on agriculture, but not forestry. Massive market opportunity, well positioned for SDGs, and driven by megatrends (building with wood, etc.).

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
In general: Proven scalability in a massive global market opportunity, with a (both) nice and savvy founding team.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?

  1. I think the consumer fintech space will get hard for startups in the coming years. Banks and institutions have competitive advantages through their large customer bases and access to resources and are investing heavily in the space (both through M&A, but more importantly with in-house initiatives and projects).
  2. Not one particular product per se, but I’m concerned about nice-to-have enterprise products that are not embedded and adapted in several departments of the customer (i.e., a marketing tool solely used by the marketing team at an organization, or a procurement tool used exclusively by procurement). I think many of these services will have a hard time in the tailwinds of COVID, and I think it is essential to get noticed by C-suites and other departments to survive in the longer run (regardless of your size and number of customers).

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
More than 50%. We are the largest and most active player in Norway by far. In 2020, we did 16 new direct investments, more than 60 follow-up investments, four IPOs, six investments in other venture funds, two complete exits.

Which industries in your city and region seem well positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
The Norwegian ecosystem will continue to thrive and be more and more relevant internationally in regards to software, particularly B2B software. This is driven by:

  1. Leading technological adaption and usage by the government, institutions and business.
  2. Low risk in career changes: talent fluctuating from leading companies to startups.
  3. Leading support and growth financing initiatives: Innovation Norway, funds, etc.
  4. Great global market access: EU networks, foreign investments, etc.

I think we especially have advantages in subsectors like proptech, energy, healthcare and education. I’m particularly excited about Kahoot, Cognite, Dignio (portfolio), Xeneta (portfolio), Gelato, Play Magnus (portfolio) and reMarkable.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?

  1. Transparent way of doing business: honest, close to zero corruption;
  2. High grade of innovation and many opportunities;
  3. Happy population = happy founders and FTEs, and high productivity;
  4. Favorable policies and regulation (policies and legal proceedings, IPOs, etc.);
  5. No language barriers;
  6. Significant support from government, institutions and local business.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Maybe, maybe not. I still think cities will be the most prominent location for startups as (1) Big business is not rural, and startup founders typically come from banks, consultancies, corporations, etc. and also recruit from the likes of it; and (2) Network access and information is more vast in cities, and even though people are currently staying at home, geographical proximity remains a key factor.
This might happen in the longer run as more corporations recruit more people remotely, but I don’t see this happening the next following years as a consequence of our situation today. I think it will take more time.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Oil and gas; we have not made any new investments the last three years, but still have some companies in our portfolio (mostly specific technologies for the O&G industries). Its attractiveness was obviously declining pre-COVID as well, but the crisis has only made the sustainable shift stronger. I don’t see it rebounding to its previous levels. I think startups have opportunities in business partnerships cross-industry, and we are seeing many examples of that now. I also think that software companies that are thriving in the current market have a clear upper hand in building sustainable long-term cultures in their organizations and attracting talent from those other industries affected (travel, aviation, O&G, retail, hotels and accommodation, etc.).

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Hasn’t impacted it in a big way as most of our companies are performing well. Founders are primarily concerned with the mental health of their employees. My advice: CEOs should especially spend a lot of time on vision and goals, culture, teamwork and collectiveness.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes, last year was a record year for us both in terms of exits, IPOs and gross IRR in the portfolio. More than 80% of invested capital is in software, hardware and healthcare, and most of our companies are thriving. We see some, but very few, being negatively affected in a big way.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
I’m doing well personally, but I have enjoyed seeing:

  1. Our fantastic team members and founders getting the recognition they deserve.
  2. Stagnating unemployment, people getting back to work.
  3. Increased focus on mental health and wellbeing from organizations, the press and government.

Who are key startup people you see creating success locally, whether investors, founders or even other types of startup ecosystems roles like lawyers, designers, growth experts, etc. We’re trying to highlight the movers and shakers who outsiders might not know.
Some:
Kremena Tosheva (SNÖ Ventures, investor), Karen Dolva (No Isolation, founder CEO), Frida Rustøen (Idékapital, investor), Ann-Tove Kongsnes (Investinor, investor), Trond Riiber Knudsen (TRK, investor), Patrick Sandahl (Investinor, investor), Bente Sollid Storehaug (chairperson), Birger Magnus (chairperson), Erik Langaker (chairperson, investor), Anders Kvåle (Arkwright, entrepreneur, investor), Mathilde Tuv Kverneland (Arkwright X, investor), Dilan Mizrakli Landgraff (Antler, investor), Jacob Tveraabak (entrepreneur, investor), Remi Dramstad (Selmer, lawyer), Martin Schütt (Askeladden, founder/investor), Christian Sagstad (Thommessen, lawyer), Jan Grønbech (growth expert), Nils Thommessen (ex-lawyer, investor and board person), Eilert Hanoa (CEO of Kahoot, investor), Tom Even Mortensen (investor, growth expert), Birgitte Villmo (Investinor, investor), Bente Loe (Alliance Ventures, investor).

Magne Uppman, managing partner, SNÖ Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
We invest across all digital tech, but some of the areas we have been looking more into lately include health tech, future of work, event and creative tech.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Our latest investment was a follow-on investment in PortalOne, the world’s first hybrid games company. PortalOne converges gaming, shows and the broader entertainment industry into one platform in a really fun and engaging way. It is like nothing you have ever seen before. Spun out of Oslo, they are soon ready to launch in the U.S.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
One space that continues to evolve is the integration of social into various sectors — e.g., social fitness, social shopping, etc. And particularly, how we can recreate the connections that we make in the physical world in the digital version, leveraging the unique accessibility and reach that the digital platform offers.
We also think there are significant advancements to be made within the privacy sector against a backdrop of increased data vulnerability and third-party access to information.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Brilliant and ambitious founder teams. And being in Norway, we want them to target a much larger and hopefully also global market pretty soon after launch. Norway and the Nordics are perfect testing pits, with a digitally advanced, high-trust population, but too small a market for most tech companies that want to become big.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
We believe that most areas pretty fast become crowded, and try to avoid companies that do only incremental improvements in oversaturated areas. But we don’t necessarily avoid competition if the businesses have a transformative technology and see solutions or have secrets that others have not yet seen.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
So far we’ve been focused on Norwegian companies only, but with our upcoming fund, we will be pan-Nordic. We expect that about 50% of our investments will be Norwegian, whereas the other 50% will be spread across Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.

Which industries in your city and region seem well positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
We see a good variety of exciting companies from Oslo and Norway. Kahoot, Spacemaker, Cognite and Pexip have been leading the way lately, with new ones like Memory, Tibber, PortalOne, reMarkable and many others coming right behind. We also believe that Norway’s strong roots with industrial companies now seem to move into tech, for example with a highly skilled workforce moving over from the oil and gas industry, as well as really exciting companies coming out of this area — Cognite being a strong example. Norway also has some unique strengths in ocean tech, renewable energy, agriculture and shipping, all fields that we believe will produce exciting startups built around tech advancements.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Oslo is a city with a strong foundation and an exciting momentum in tech. There’s too few local VCs, though, and that creates a funding gap around the Series A stage, but at the same time lots of opportunities for investors taking their time to get to know the ecosystem. They should know that the Nordics are fragmented, so it’s not enough to know Stockholm; they should also invest time in the other Nordic hubs in order to succeed with a Nordic investment strategy.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
The trend of remote work will increase. We have portfolio companies that don’t even have an office today; Confrere, for instance, which offers a video meeting and conferencing platform currently focused primarily on the healthcare sector, has all their employees working remote. But we also see a strong advantage of companies being tightly connected to a startup hub, there is so much learning, inspiration and network to be shared. Hopefully we’ll see even more minihubs being built around the country, and them connecting tightly to each other. There is a lot of potential in more and better collaboration between the different hubs, locally, nationally and internationally.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Some of the industry segments that look weaker are business travel, retail and hospitality. Exciting opportunities exist within event, games, work tools and efficiency, health tech and sustainability. One particularly interesting challenge is to understand and anticipate which of the trends that have arisen during these times will be temporary and which will be permanent.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Some areas have developed fast, and that impacts which areas we focus on. The biggest worries on the portfolio side have been (1) that their B2B sales will be affected and (2) that the investment climate will be more challenging. Our advice has been to secure a long runway for some companies, whereas other companies have accelerated because of the shifts caused by COVID-19 and need to run even faster.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes, the first two months were hard for some of the portfolio companies, but after that things recovered and they mostly are back at the revenue growth that they planned for before the pandemic.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
At SNÖ we often draw the comparison between being a founder and the proud heritage we have in Norway with polar explorers and their great expeditions. What our founders have shown the last year, through these uncertain times, gives me good hope that this comparison is valid like never before. Entrepreneurs are the polar explorers of 2021.

Who are key startup people you see creating success locally, whether investors, founders or even other types of startup ecosystems roles like lawyers, designers, growth experts, etc. We’re trying to highlight the movers and shakers who outsiders might not know.
There are many in the Oslo scene that have contributed a lot during the last few years; Rolf Assev, Alexander Woxen, Per Einar Dybvik, Tor Bækkelund, Kjetil Holmefjord at StartupLab, Ingar Bentsen and Hans Christian Bjørne at TheFactory, Anniken Fjelberg at 657, Anders Mjåset at Mesh, Heidi Aven at SHE, Knut Wien and Maja Adriaensen at Startup Norway, Lucas H. Weldeghebriel and Per-Ivar Nikolaisen at Shifter. And many more. All great people who deserve praise.


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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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