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Symend nabs $43M for a platform to help customers avoid defaulting on bills

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The pandemic-fueled economic uncertainty of the last year has led many to project that the rate of credit defaults among consumers will continue to wobble into 2021. Today a startup that has built a platform to help consumers mitigate that situation is announcing some funding on the back of more demand for its services.

Symend, which builds behavioral analytics that integrate with customer engagement products to help identify customers having trouble paying bills, and then suggests payment alternatives to keep them from defaulting altogether, has picked up $43 million in funding.

The money is an extension to its Series B, closed in May of last year, bringing the total for the round to $95 million, and over $100 million for the Calgary, Canada startup since being founded in 2016.

Inovia Capital is leading this latest funding injection, with other unnamed investors participating.

Symend is not disclosing its valuation but Hanif Joshaghani, Symend’s CEO who co-founded the company with Tiffany Kaminsky (the startups CMO), said that it comes on the heels of a “massive uptick” among enterprises investing in solutions to help support customers finding it hard to meet payments.

“Customer uncertainty has been extremely high and service providers don’t have the capacity to support the mass volumes of inquiries in a way that effectively resonates with and empathetically reassures customers,” he said in an interview.

The startup has been working primarily with clients in telecommunications, financial services, utilities and media and claims to have two-thirds of the major telecommunications providers in North America, as well as a multinational bank, as customers.

Last year, Symend said it was on track to work with 100 million customers (that is, customers of its clients) by the end of 2020, and we are asking the company whether it has passed that number.

The startup’s aim is twofold: it identifies when their customers are having trouble paying bills, and offers those customers alternatives beyond simple deferrals, which for many just put off addressing the issue.

At the same time, Symend’s solution is not just about avoiding deferrals: the company’s solutions aim to provide assistance and alternatives to companies that are seeing an overwhelming amount of traffic in its customer service operations.

Deferrals, however, remain a key point: Most service providers have been offering deferral periods this past year as their first-line approach to avoiding defaults. But Joshaghani said he believes that deferrals “can provide a false sense of financial security for customers.”

That, in part, is because those customers are usually deferring more than one bill.

A survey the company conducted in July among 500 of its users found a 27% increase in people falling behind in bill payments between April and July 2020, with those falling behind typically doing so on an average of three bills: 55% on at least one loan; 37% were behind on mortgage/rent; 21% were behind on their line of credit; 52% were behind on credit card payments.

Missing payments, and any personal financial trouble, is usually tied in with more than simply not having money: there can be job losses, illness, family trouble, and much more behind why someone finds himself or herself missing a bill deadline.

Symend therefore tries to take a sensitive approach both to identifying when problems are arising, and addressing them.

“Given that Symend’s primary goal is to save customers from negative outcomes, we deployed strategies with our clients to ensure customers felt supported and empowered to act and avoid bills piling up through the deferral period,” Joshaghani noted. “By engaging customers with empathetic communications, self-serve tools and flexible repayment options, Symend has helped leading enterprises provide customers with a positive experience in an otherwise highly uncertain and stressful time. By empowering customers to act through digital tools, Symend alleviates pressure from overwhelmed call centres, increases customer satisfaction, lowers operating costs and helps customers resolve past due bills before they reach collections.”

As we have described before, Symend’s staff is around 25% behavioral science PhDs, but it does not go into a lot of detail about how it works, or the approach that it takes in evaluating customers. It uses data from businesses themselves, and combines that with third-party resources (not unlike the data trove that many AI-based fintechs might use to, say, weigh up the eligibility of a person for a particular loan at a particular interest rate).

Kaminsky notes that the last year of business has seen the company make more investments into its algorithms and analytics.

“Using our behaviorally informed algorithms, Symend can identify and distinguish between key variations in customer behavior to personalize and optimize interactions based on the unique preferences of the individual,” she said. “Symend’s AI/ML model takes this a step further by combining insights from customer interactions with historical data on actions taken. These insights help Symend discover underlying psychological and behavioral traits to determine which engagement strategies will positively shape behavior.”

Then to capture customer sentiment and further iterate on these strategies, she says that Symend uses NLP processing models to automatically categorize sentiment based on provided responses to communications and within self-serve tools. “Our metrics are shaped with the end goal of building a consistently positive brand experience that extends far beyond past due bills, which is why our AI/ML model uses sentiment analysis and engagement scoring,” she said. “This ultimately ensures that communications resonate with the customer’s unique and evolving needs, creating a consistently positive experience that retains customers.”

Going ahead, the company is going to use the funding to continue hiring, in particular internationally, with a focus on opening up operations in Latin Americas and Asia-Pacific regions. It’s also going to be investing in expanding its products to include customer retention and acquisition tools, alongside more investment in expanding its product to help people avoid defaults on bills.

“We are big believers in Symend’s mission to add lasting value to enterprises, by helping their customers avoid collections,” said Dennis Kavelman, Partner at Inovia Capital, in a statement. “Their approach is differentiated and effective because it combines behavioral science and data science to drive a personalized approach for each customer. With this new investment, Symend is well funded to execute its strategy of scaling globally, and to partner with large enterprises in many industries.”

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

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Tim Hortons marks two years in China with Tencent investment

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Tim Hortons, the Canadian coffee and doughnut giant, has raised a new round of funding for its Chinese venture. The investment is led by Sequoia China with participation from Tencent, its digital partner in China, and Eastern Bell Capital. The round comes two years after Tim Hortons made its foray into China’s booming coffee industry.

Tim Hortons didn’t disclose the amount of its latest fundraise but noted in a social media post that the proceeds will be used for opening more stores, building its digital infrastructure, brand presence, and more.

Tencent, the Chinese social media and entertainment behemoth, first backed the 57-year-old Canadian coffee chain last May. At the time the tie-up was seen as Tencent’s move to counter archrival Alibaba’s alliance with Starbucks to deliver coffee and help the American coffee titan go digital in China.

Tim Horton’s collaboration with the WeChat parent is in a similar vein. It has so far accumulated three million members through its WeChat mini program, a type of lightweight app that runs within the instant messenger. To appeal to young Chinese consumers, Tim Hortons opened an esports-themed cafe with Tencent, China’s biggest gaming company.

Two years into operating in China, Tim Hortons says it has reached storefront-level profitability with a footprint of 150 locations across 10 major cities. It plans to add more than 200 locations in 2021 and reach 1,500 stores nationwide in the next few years.

The dramatic rise and fall of coffee delivery startup Luckin brought the prospects of China’s coffee market to the forefront. Despite the investment frenzy around Luckin and other coffee businesses, coffee drinking still has a relatively low penetration in China compared to countries like the United States and Germany. On the other hand, coffee consumption is growing at a much faster rate of 15% in China, well above the global average of 2%, and is projected to reach 1 trillion yuan ($150 million) in 2025, according to a 2020 report by Dongxing Securities.

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Bessemer Venture Partners closes on $3.3 billion across two funds

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Another major VC firm has closed two major rounds, underscoring the long-term confidence investors continue to have for backing privately-held companies in the tech sector.

Early-stage VC firm Bessemer Venture Partners announced Thursday the close of two new funds totaling $3.3 billion that it will be using both to back early-stage startups as well as growth rounds for more mature companies.

The Redwood City-based firm closed BVP XI with $2.475 billion and BVP Century II with $825 million in total commitments.

With BVP XI, it plans to focus on early-stage companies spanning across enterprise, consumer, healthcare, and frontier technologies. 

Its Century II fund is aimed at backing growth-stage companies that Bessemer believes “will define the next century,” and will include both follow-on rounds for existing portfolio companies or investments in new ones.

BVP XI marks Bessemer’s largest fund in its 110-year history. In October 2018, the firm brought in $1.85 billion for its tenth flagship VC fund. This latest fund is its fifth consecutive billion-dollar fund, based on PitchBook data. 

Despite being founded more than 100 years ago, Bessemer didn’t actually enter the venture business until 1965. It’s known for its investments in LinkedIn, Blue Apron and many others, with a current portfolio that includes PagerDuty, Shippo, Electric and DocuSign. Exits include Twitch and Shopify, among many others.

With more money than ever before available for backing startups, the challenge now for VCs is to see how and if they can find (and invest in) whatever will define the next generation of tech. 

“As venture capitalists, we pay too much attention to pattern recognition and matching when in reality, the biggest opportunities exist where those patterns break,” the firm wrote in a blog post today. “Our job is to make perceptive bets on the future, especially those that others will dismiss and ridicule. We are fundamental optimists and strong believers in the power of innovation; our life’s work is putting our reputation, time, and money to help entrepreneurs realize a different future. They’re the ones pioneering something entirely new and obscure – a technology, a business model, a category.

In addition to announcing the new funds, Bessemer also revealed today that it’s brought on five new partners including Jeff Blackburn, who joins after a 22-year career at Amazon, alongside the promotion of existing investors Mary D’Onofrio, Mike Droesch, Tess Hatch, and Andrew Hedin.

Most recently at Amazon, Blackburn served as senior vice president of worldwide business development where he oversaw dozens of Amazon’s minority investments and more than 100 acquisitions across all business lines – including retail, Kindle, Echo, Alexa, FireTV, advertising, music, streaming audio & video, and Amazon Web Services.  

“Having been part of Amazon for more than two decades, I’m excited to begin a new chapter helping customer-focused founders build breakthrough companies,” said Blackburn in a written statement.  “I’ve known the Bessemer team for many years and have long admired their strategic vision and success backing early-stage ventures.” 

With the latest changes, Bessemer now has 21 partners and over 45 investors, advisors, and platform “team members” located in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Boston, London, Tel Aviv, Bangalore, and Beijing. 

“At Bessemer, there’s no corner office or consensus; every partner has the choice, independently, to pen a check. This kind of accountability and autonomy means a founder is teaming up with a partner and board director who thoroughly understands your business and can respond quickly and decisively,” the firm’s blog post read.

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Daily Crunch: Twitter announces ‘Super Follow’ subscriptions

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Twitter reveals its move into paid subscriptions, Australia passes its media bargaining law and Coinbase files its S-1. This is your Daily Crunch for February 25, 2021.

The big story: Twitter announces ‘Super Follow’ subscriptions

Twitter announced its first paid product at an investor event today, showing off screenshots of a feature that will allow users to subscribe to their favorite creators in exchange for things like exclusive content, subscriber-only newsletters and a supporter badge.

The company also announced a feature called Communities, which could compete with Facebook Groups and enable Super Follow networks to interact, plus a Safety Mode for auto-blocking and muting abusive accounts. On top of all that, Twitter said it plans to double revenue by 2023.

Not announced: launch dates for any of these features.

The tech giants

After Facebook’s news flex, Australia passes bargaining code for platforms and publishers — This requires platform giants like Facebook and Google to negotiate to remunerate local news publishers for their content.

New Facebook ad campaign extols the benefits of personalized ads — The sentiments are similar to a campaign that Facebook launched last year in opposition to Apple’s upcoming App Tracking Transparency feature.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Sergey Brin’s airship aims to use world’s biggest mobile hydrogen fuel cell — The Google co-founder’s secretive airship company LTA Research and Exploration is planning to power a huge disaster relief airship with an equally record-breaking hydrogen fuel cell.

Coinbase files to go public in a key listing for the cryptocurrency category — Coinbase’s financials show a company that grew rapidly from 2019 to 2020 while also crossing the threshold into unadjusted profitability.

Boosted by the pandemic, meeting transcription service Otter.ai raises $50M — With convenient timing, Otter.ai added Zoom integration back in April 2020.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

DigitalOcean’s IPO filing shows a two-class cloud market — The company intends to list on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol “DOCN.”

Pilot CEO Waseem Daher tears down his company’s $60M Series C pitch deck — For founders aiming to entice investors, the pitch deck remains the best way to communicate their startup’s progress and potential.

Five takeaways from Coinbase’s S-1 — We dig into Coinbase’s user numbers, its asset mix, its growing subscription incomes, its competitive landscape and who owns what in the company.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Paramount+ will cost $4.99 per month with ads — The new streaming service launches on March 4.

Register for TC Sessions: Justice for a conversation on diversity, equity and inclusion in the startup world — This is just one week away!

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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