Walmart’s Flipkart to cover insurance for all sellers in India and waive additional fees

Walmart-owned Flipkart is exempting storage and cancellation fees for sellers on its marketplace and also providing them with insurance coverage as the top e-commerce platform in India looks to maintain cordial relationships with more than 300,000 sellers who are facing severe disruption amid an unprecedented rise in the spread of coronavirus infections in the South Asian nation.

The Bangalore-headquartered firm said Friday evening that it is exempting storage fees to sellers who use the company’s fulfilment centres, and also waiving off the cancellation fees until the end of the month. (Several Indian states, as they did during the first wave of the virus, have imposed restrictions on sale and delivery of non-essential items.)

Flipkart will bear 100% premium of COVID insurance to all sellers that transact on the platform, covering any hospitalization and consultation fees between 50,000 Indian rupees ($685) to 300,000 Indian rupees ($4095).

The news today comes a week after Amazon, Flipkart’s chief rival in India, announced it was waiving 50% of the referral fee sellers are required to pay the e-commerce firm for this month, though not all sellers are qualified to avail this benefit. (The company said earlier this week that it was also postponing Prime Day in India and Canada due to the growing cases of the infection.)

Flipkart said it is also making it easier for sellers to access working capital from the firm without any incremental cost, though it did not specify the steps it had made.

It is also extending the window for the Seller Protection Fund to 30 days (from 14) to make claims on returned products. Flipkart said it will also ease its policies and performance metrics to ensure that they are not impacted by state-led lockdowns.

Flipkart, which as of last year was working to go public this year, said it has partnered with Vriddhi, Walmart’s Supplier Development Program in India, to organize webinars for small businesses to share best practices to ensure safety of workforce and provide insights to stay afloat amid the crisis.

“Through these testing times it is our constant effort to support our seller partners who face immense operational challenges as a result of the pandemic. As a democratic marketplace, we want to ensure that our lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of seller partners are able to continue operations and keep the economic engine running,” said Jagjeet Harode, senior director and head of Marketplace at Flipkart, in a statement.

“With them and their family’s financial and health safety in mind, we have rolled out these initiatives that will bring them the much-needed respite to keep their businesses active.”

India has been reporting over 400,00 daily infections this week, more than any other nation, as the world’s second-most populated nation struggles to contain the second wave of the virus. Scores of firms, startups, investors and people alike are uniting to help the nation fight the virus, which has severely impacted the healthcare facilities.

Berlin’s Razor Group raises $400M to buy and scale Amazon Marketplace merchants

The market remains very hot for startups building e-commerce empires by consolidating independent third-party merchants that have gained traction on Amazon’s Marketplace, and in the latest development, Razor Group — a Berlin-based startup buying up promising Amazon sellers and scaling them into bigger, multi-channel businesses — has closed financing of $400 million to scale its own efforts in the space.

Around $25 million is coming in the form of equity to grow its business and $375 million is in debt to make acquisitions, with target businesses typically already pulling in between $1 million and $15 million in annual revenues.

Razor Group itself is not even a year old but has been building out its business at a fast pace. Founded in August 2020, in the last eight months, CEO Tushar Ahluwalia said the startup has grown to 107 employees across four offices and is currently on track to cross $120 million (€100 million) in sales from the 30 brands it has already amassed in its stable in categories like personal wellness, sports and home and living. Assuming the debt capital it’s now raised is put to use, Ahluwalia believes Razor Group will cross $480 million (€400 million) in sales in the next 12 to 15 months.

As a point of comparison, Thrasio, one of the older players in this current market, was founded in 2018 and has 100 brands in its stable.

Indeed, there are, as you might have seen, a lot of others in the market pursuing the “FBA rollup” model — consolidating businesses that have been built on the back of Fulfillment by Amazon, with the pitch being they can apply more sophisticated economies of scale, analytics and management to grow great cottage industries into high rises, so to speak. But Razor believes its point of differentiation is its focus on technology to improve its responsiveness to the market, both when it comes to identifying and buying brands, and then growing them.

It’s a big opportunity. By one estimate there are about 5 million third-party sellers on Amazon today, and their ranks are growing exponentially, with more than 1 million sellers joining the platform in 2020 alone. Thrasio has in the past estimated to me that there are probably 50,000 businesses selling on Amazon via FBA making $1 million or more per year in revenues.

“It’s perfectly acceptable to build an FBA-based business, but at some point you can move beyond that,” Ahluwalia said in an interview. “We want to transform what we see as the levers of business operations in this space. We don’t see ourselves as the next P&G, but a new version of it, building microchampions in micromarkets, identifying underpriced digital real estate. Just thinking about it as abritrage is not enough.”

The funding, a mixture of equity to invest in the startup itself and debt to use for acquisitions (and it is mostly debt), is being led by funds and accounts managed by BlackRock and Victory Park Capital (“VPC”) as well as its existing shareholders, a list that includes a number of individuals as well as VCs such as Redalpine, FJ Labs and Global Founders Capital, the VC firm co-founded by the Samwer Brothers, also behind the well-known Berlin e-commerce incubator Rocket Internet.

Ahluwalia and Razor’s head of finance Christoph Gamon — who together co-founded Razor with CTO Shrestha Chowdury — are both Rocket Internet alums, and Ahluwalia and Chowdury also worked on a previous e-commerce business in India called StalkBuyLove (a clone of Wanelo — short for “Want Need Love” — for India, I think) that ran out of cash and shut down.

All of that speaks to both the inroads that the founders may have had into gaining some early financing from other Rocket alums and others, as well as their experiences, both good and bad, of what it takes to grow and scale e-commerce businesses.

Including the $25 million in this latest tranche, the funding brings the total raised in equity by Razor Group to about $40 million — with the previous money being used to get the ball rolling and “validate the model”, Ahluwalia said. It’s not disclosing its valuation today but he confirmed it’s also raising another, larger equity round when it will be speaking more about that.

Meanwhile, the huge injection of debt financing it is getting for acquisitions — doubled after its original plan to raise $200 million got a lot of interest — is a sign not just of what investors and Razor Group itself see as an opportunity, but also of the encroaching competition from other roll-up players that are also well capitalized also setting their sights on buying up the most promising independent businesses selling via Amazon and other marketplace providers.

That list of competitors is getting longer by the day. It includes Thrasio, one of the first startups to identify and build out this space, which has raised very large rounds in rapid succession totaling hundreds of millions of dollars in the last year, and is profitable; Branded; Heroes; SellerX; Perch; Berlin Brands Group (X2); Benitago; and Valoreo (with its backers including Razor’s CEO).

The opportunity is also breeding other e-commerce startups like Jungle Scout, which has also raised $110 million recently, providing tools to some of those third-party sellers to help them stay, in fact, independent (or at least grow more to be more valuable to acquirers)

Razor believes that its ability to stand out in this crowd will not just be based on how much money it has to spend, but on the technology that it is using to identify the best third-party sellers faster in order to roll them up first, and then to leverage that early move by giving those companies better tools to grow faster.

Chowdhury describes the platform that she has built as “M&A 2.0”, a system that performs “massive due dilligence” at machine scale by evaluating some 1 million companies each week as they perform on platforms like Amazon’s. “Technology runs through the whole business,” she said, started with the acquisitions, where Razor is identifying the most interesting companies faster than others, she said. “We look at thousands of data points,” building algorithms, she continued, “to flag what we want to acquire. It means that our acquisitions funnel is 99% sourced directly and we don’t rely on brokers.” Brokers, she said, are something of a unspoken part of this area, but bypassing them means less competition and better pricing.

Being early also means building better relationships with the owners of these businesses, with less time pressure.

“Dealmaking is something extremely personal,” Ahluwalia said. “A seller needs to like you. Our calculations have allowed us to be the first in these deal conversations”

Further along, that data will also help Razor build those businesses and figure out where else brands can be sold beyond Amazon and how to sell them better.

That is a plan that has yet to be proven out, given the age of the company, but investors — adding up the numbers and track record of these founders, and the tech they have built — are willing to bet on this one.

“We are excited to partner with Tushar, Chris, and the rest of the Razor Group team. The ability to identify, underwrite, integrate and ultimately create tangible value across a broad suite of eCommerce assets is a real competitive advantage in the marketplace,” said Tom Welch, partner at VPC, in a statement.

“We are pleased to make this investment in Razor Group to support the company’s strong growth momentum as it continues to diversify its portfolio of brands and expand into new markets,” added Dan Worrell, MD at BlackRock.

Amazon’s over-the-top business, including IMDb TV and Twitch, tops 120M monthly viewers

Amazon’s free, ad-supported streaming service IMDb TV is getting its own mobile app. The company announced the news today at its first-ever NewFronts presentation to advertisers, where it also shared that its over-the-top streaming businesses combined — meaning, IMDb TV, Twitch, live sports like Thursday Night Football, Amazon’s News app and others — have now grown to more than 120 million monthly viewers.

This over-the-top business, or Amazon OTT as it’s called, includes anywhere ads show up alongside content on the IMDb TV app, Twitch’s game streaming site, during live sports Amazon streams through Prime Video, its 3P network and broadcaster apps and its Amazon’s News app for Fire TV.

IMDb TV viewership, in particular, jumped 138% year-over-year, Amazon noted.

The ad-supported service, which likely benefited from the same pandemic bump that drove streaming service viewership higher across the board last year, is something of a rival to other free, ad-supported streamers, like Fox’s Tubi, ViacomCBS’s Pluto TV or Roku’s The Roku Channel. However, more like Roku’s hub, Amazon leverages IMDb TV to help it sell its own media devices by promising users easy access to free, streaming content.

Today, that’s resulted in the IMDb TV app seeing the majority of its usage on Fire TV. But over the past several months, the app has become more broadly available, with launches on Roku, Chromecast with Google TV, PlayStation 4 consoles, Xbox One and Series X devices, LG Smart TVs, Nvidia, Sony Android TV and TiVo Android TV devices, Amazon says.

Now it will get its own dedicated mobile app, as well, instead of only a small section inside the IMDb app where the service’s content can be found today on smartphones. The new standalone app will arrive this summer on both iOS and Android, says Amazon.

Amazon also told advertisers about IMDb TV’s current user base, noting that 62% were in between ages 18 and 49. And they spend 5.5 hours per week on the app, on average.

The forthcoming mobile launch was one of several announcements Amazon made today at its Newfronts presentation today.

The company also detailed its upcoming IMDb TV slate, including unscripted series “Luke Bryan: My Dirt Road Diary,” “Bug Out” and “Untitled Jeff Lewis Project” as well as scripted releases “Blessed and Highly Favored,” “Greek Candy,” “Primo,” “The Fed,” and “The Pradeeps of Pittsburgh, PA.” Music duo Tegan and Sara’s memoir “High School” will be adapted as an original series for IMDb TV. IMDb TV also announced a new crime drama, “Leverage: Redemption,” and police drama, “On Call.”

IMDb TV parent company Amazon, meanwhile, expanded its deal with the NFL for Thursday Night Football, which now runs 11 seasons, starting with the 2022 season instead of the following year.

Cloud infrastructure market keeps rolling in Q1 with almost $40B in revenue

Conventional wisdom over the last year has suggested that the pandemic has driven companies to the cloud much faster than they ever would have gone without that forcing event with some suggesting it has compressed years of transformation into months. This quarter’s cloud infrastructure revenue numbers appear to be proving that thesis correct.

With The Big Three — Amazon, Microsoft and Google — all reporting this week, the market generated almost $40 billion in revenue, according to Synergy Research data. That’s up $2 billion from last quarter and up 37% over the same period last year. Canalys’s numbers were slightly higher at $42 billion.

As you might expect if you follow this market, AWS led the way with $13.5 billion for the quarter up 32% year over year. That’s a run rate of $54 billion. While that is an eye-popping number, what’s really remarkable is the yearly revenue growth, especially for a company the size and maturity of Amazon. The law of large numbers would suggest this isn’t sustainable, but the pie keeps growing and Amazon continues to take a substantial chunk.

Overall AWS held steady with 32% market share. While the revenue numbers keep going up, Amazon’s market share has remained firm for years at around this number. It’s the other companies down market that are gaining share over time, most notably Microsoft which is now at around 20% share good for about $7.8 billion this quarter.

Google continues to show signs of promise under Thomas Kurian, hitting $3.5 billion good for 9% as it makes a steady march towards double digits. Even IBM had a positive quarter, led by Red Hat and cloud revenue good for 5% or about $2 billion overall.

Synergy Research cloud infrastructure bubble map for Q1 2021. AWS is leader, followed by Microsoft and Google.

Image Credits: Synergy Research

John Dinsdale, chief analyst at Synergy says that even though AWS and Microsoft have firm control of the market, that doesn’t mean there isn’t money to be made by the companies playing behind them.

“These two don’t have to spend too much time looking in their rearview mirrors and worrying about the competition. However, that is not to say that there aren’t some excellent opportunities for other players. Taking Amazon and Microsoft out of the picture, the remaining market is generating over $18 billion in quarterly revenues and growing at over 30% per year. Cloud providers that focus on specific regions, services or user groups can target several years of strong growth,” Dinsdale said in a statement.

Canalys, another firm that watches the same market as Synergy had similar findings with slight variations, certainly close enough to confirm one another’s findings. They have AWS with 32%, Microsoft 19%, and Google with 7%.

Canalys market share chart with Amazon with 32%, Microsoft 19% and Google 7%

Image Credits: Canalys

Canalys analyst Blake Murray says that there is still plenty of room for growth, and we will likely continue to see big numbers in this market for several years. “Though 2020 saw large-scale cloud infrastructure spending, most enterprise workloads have not yet transitioned to the cloud. Migration and cloud spend will continue as customer confidence rises during 2021. Large projects that were postponed last year will resurface, while new use cases will expand the addressable market,” he said.

The numbers we see are hardly a surprise anymore, and as companies push more workloads into the cloud, the numbers will continue to impress. The only question now is if Microsoft can continue to close the market share gap with Amazon.

As concerns rise over forest carbon offsets, Pachama’s verified offset marketplace gets $15 million

Restoring and preserving the world’s forests has long been considered one of the easiest, lowest cost, and simplest ways to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

It’s by far the most popular method for corporations looking to take an easy first step on the long road to decarbonizing or offsetting their industrial operations. But in recent months the efficacy, validity, and reliability of a number of forest offsets have been called into question thanks to some blockbuster reporting from Bloomberg.

It’s against this uncertain backdrop that investors are coming in to shore up financing for Pachama, a company building a marketplace for forest carbon credits that it says is more transparent and verifiable thanks to its use of satellite imagery and machine learning technologies.

That pitch has brought in $15 million in new financing for the company, which co-founder and chief executive Diego Saez Gil said would be used for product development and the continued expansion of the company’s marketplace.

Launched only one year ago, Pachama has managed to land some impressive customers and backers. No less an authority on things environmental than Jeff Bezos (given how much of a negative impact Amazon operations have on the planet), gave the company a shoutout in his last letter to shareholders as Amazon’s outgoing chief executive. And the largest ecommerce company in Latin America, Mercado Libre, tapped the company to manage an $8 million offset project that’s part of a broader commitment to sustainability by the retailing giant.

Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund is an investor in the latest round, which was led by Bill Gates’ investment firm Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Other investors included Lowercarbon Capital (the climate-focused fund from über-successful angel investor, Chris Sacca), former Über executive Ryan Graves’ Saltwater, the MCJ Collective, and new backers like Tim O’Reilly’s OATV, Ram Fhiram, Joe gebbia, Marcos Galperin, NBA All-star Manu Ginobilli, James Beshara, Fabrice Grinda, Sahil Lavignia, and Tomi Pierucci.

That’s not even the full list of the company’s backers. What’s made Pachama so successful, and given the company the ability to attract top talent from companies like Google, Facebook, SapceX, Tesla, OpenAI, Microsoft, Impossible Foods and Orbital Insights, is the combination of its climate mission applied to the well-understood forest offset market, said Saez Gil.

“Restoring nature is one of the most important solutions to climate change. Forests, oceans and other ecosystems not only sequester enormous amounts of CO2from the atmosphere, but they also provide critical habitat for biodiversity and are sources of livelihood for communities worldwide. We are building the technology stack required to be able to drive funding to the restoration and conservation of these ecosystems with integrity, transparency and efficiency” said Diego Saez Gil, Co-founder and CEO at Pachama. “We feel honored and excited to have the support of such an incredible group of investors who believe in our mission and are demonstrating their willingness to support our growth for the long term”. 

Customers outside of Latin America are also clamoring for access to Pachama’s offset marketplace. Microsoft, Shopify, and Softbank are also among the company’s paying buyers.

It’s another reason that investors like Y Combinator, Social Capital, Tobi Lutke, Serena Williams, Aglaé Ventures (LVMH’s tech investment arm), Paul Graham, AirAngels, Global Founders, ThirdKind Ventures, Sweet Capital, Xplorer Capital, Scott Belsky, Tim Schumacher, Gustaf Alstromer, Facundo Garreton, and Terrence Rohan, were able to commit to backing the company’s nearly $24 million haul since its 2020 launch. 

“Pachama is working on unlocking the full potential of nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere,” said Carmichael Roberts from BEV, in a statement. “Their technology-based approach will have an enormous multiplier effect by using machine learning models for forest analysis to validate, monitor and measure impactful carbon neutrality initiatives. We are impressed by the progress that the team has made in a short period of time and look forward to working with them to scale their unique solution globally.” 

 

India’s ElasticRun raises $75 million to grow its commerce platform for neighborhood stores

A startup that is helping over 125,000 neighborhood stores in India secure working capital, inventory from top brands, and work with e-commerce firms to boost revenues said on Thursday it has raised a new financing round as it looks to further its reach in the world’s second largest internet market.

Pune-based ElasticRun said it has raised $75 million in its Series D financing round co-led by existing investors Avataar Ventures and Prosus Ventures. Existing investor Kalaari Capital also participated in the round, which takes the four-year-old startup’s to-date raise to $130.5 million.

Millions of neighborhood stores that dot large and small cities, towns and villages in India and have proven tough to beat for e-commerce giants and super-chain retailers are at the center of a new play in the country.

A score of e-commerce companies, offline retail chains and fintech startups are now racing to work with these mom and pop stores as they look to tap a massive untapped opportunity.

Screen Shot 2019 10 30 at 2.18.53 PM

Sandeep Deshmukh, co-founder and CEO of ElasticRun, talking about the startup’s business at a conference in 2019.

ElasticRun helps merchants operating these stores, who typically have to spend a few days a month visiting bigger cities to secure inventory, get reliable and more affordable goods directly from big brands. (Big brands love this because this enables them to significantly expand their reach.)

These store owners also spend a number of hours a day not doing much when the business is slow. ElasticRun is also addressing this by partnering with some of the biggest e-commerce firms including Amazon and Flipkart to utilize this workforce to make deliveries to customers. (E-commerce firms find value in this because neighborhood stores have a larger presence in the country, can reach a customer much faster, and also often have their own inventory.)

Ashutosh Sharma, Head of Investments for India at Prosus Ventures, told TechCrunch that ElasticRun has built a variable capacity, crowdsourced delivery model, which distinguishes the startup from other players in the market that have a fixed number of people on payrolls making these deliveries. He said as the startup has developed the railroads, a number of new opportunities has unlocked.

One such opportunity is providing working capital to these neighborhood stores. Their operators typically don’t have savings, and need to sell the existing inventory to secure funds to refill the stock. In recent years, ElasticRun has struck partnerships with banks and NBFCs to provide credit to these merchants.

ElasticRun today operates in over 300 cities in nearly all Indian states. The startup works with over 125,000 neighborhood stores, and plans to expand to reach 1 million in 18 to 24 months, said Shitiz Bansal, co-founder and chief technology officer of ElasticRun, in an interview with TechCrunch.

The startup’s current run rate is about $350 million, a figure it plans to grow to over $1 billion in the next 12 months, he said.

Saurabh Nigam, co-founder and chief operating officer, said the new financing round has also enabled the startup to offer early employees access to “tangible benefits” of the firm’s growth over the last five years.

Alchemy raises $80M at a $505M valuation to be the ‘AWS for blockchain’

Blockchain developer platform Alchemy announced today it has raised $80 million in a Series B round of funding led by Coatue and Addition, Lee Fixel’s new fund. The company previously raised a total of $15.5 million, so the latest financing brings its total raised to $95.5 million since it launched in 2017.

The latest round caught our attention for a few reasons.

First, the company, which describes itself as the backend technology behind the blockchain industry, went from public launch to a $505 million valuation in a matter of just eight months. During that time, Alchemy says it powered over $30 billion in transactions for tens of millions of users all over the world. Second, the startup says it also already powering the majority of the NFT industry.

And finally, its investors in the round include a high-profile mix of institutions and individuals such as DFJ Growth, K5 Global, the Chainsmokers, actor Jared Leto and the Glazer family (owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Manchester United). They joined existing backers including Yahoo co-founder and former CEO Jerry Yang, Pantera Capital, Coinbase, SignalFire, Samsung, Stanford University, Google chairman and Stanford University President John L. Hennessy, Charles Schwab, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and others.

Sources with inside knowledge of Alchemy’s operations tell TechCrunch that the company has already grown its business more than eightfold since it signed the Series B term sheet. They also said Alchemy had over $300 million of investor demand wanting to enter the round and is being inbounded to do another financing at “many times” the current valuation.

TechCrunch talked with Alchemy co-founders Nikil Viswanathan (CEO) and Joe Lau (CTO) about the raise and their passion for the startup’s mission was clear. As is its explosive growth.

“We realized that in order for space to thrive and build to its full potential, we needed to build a developer platform layer for blockchain,” Viswanathan told TechCrunch.

Alchemy’s goal is to be the starting place for developers considering to build a product on top of a blockchain or mainstream blockchain applications. Its developer platform aims to remove the complexity and costs of building infrastructure while improving applications through “necessary” developer tools.

The startup powers a range of transactions across nearly every blockchain vertical, including financial institutions, exchanges, billion-dollar decentralized finance projects and multinational organizations such as UNICEF. It has also quickly become the technology behind every major NFT platform, including Makersplace, OpenSea, Nifty Gateway, SuperRare and CryptoPunks.  

“Every time you open DoorDash, you’re using Amazon’s infrastructure,” Lau said. “Every time you interact with an NFT, you’re using Alchemy. It’s being powered by Alchemy underneath the hood.”

While the pair would not provide hard revenue figures, the company – which operates as a SaaS business – says it increased its revenue by 600% in 2020.

For inside players, Alchemy’s efforts are paving the way for the whole industry. 

“The cryptoeconomy is innovating faster than any technological movement that came before it, and Alchemy has been a key driver of that,” said Coinbase President and COO Emilie Choi. “Alchemy enables developers to build the rich ecosystem of applications necessary for mainstream blockchain adoption.”

Pantera Capital’s Paul Veradittakit describes Alchemy as “the Amazon Web Services (AWS) of the blockchain industry” that is “enabling the vision of a decentralized web.”

“While in Web 2.0, Microsoft, Apple and AWS are three of the most valuable companies in the world because they are the developer platform powering the computer and internet industries, Alchemy is primed to do the same for the blockchain,” he said.

The company believes the comparison to AWS is fair, noting that: “Just as AWS provides the platform that powers Uber, Netflix and much of the technology industry, Alchemy powers infrastructure for many large players in the blockchain industry.”

Alchemy plans to use its new capital to expand its developer platform to new blockchains, fuel global expansion and to open new offices in the U.S. and globally. The startup is based in San Francisco and is planning to open an office in New York.  

“We are going to use the funds to support new chains with our developer platform,” Viswanathan said. “We also expect to 5x the team this year.”

But to be clear, Alchemy prides itself on being lean and mean.

“We just went from 14 to 22 employees,” Lau said. “We have intentionally wanted to keep the team as small as possible.”

The blockchain space has been the subject of increased investor interest as of late.

In March, BlockFi, which describes itself a financial services company for crypto market investors, announced it had closed on a massive $350 million Series D funding that valued it at $3 billion. Also last month, Chainalysis, a blockchain analysis company, revealed the close of $100 million in Series D financing, which doubled its valuation to over $2 billion.

Armed with $160M in funding, LatAm’s Merama enters the e-commerce land grab

Merama, a five-month old e-commerce startup focused on Latin America, announced today that it has raised $60 million in seed and Series A funding and $100 million in debt.

The money was raised “at well over a $200 million valuation,” according to co-founder and CEO Sujay Tyle.  

“We are receiving significant inbound for a Series B already,” he said.

LatAm firms Valor Capital and Monashees Capital and U.K.-based Balderton Capital co-led the “massively oversubscribed” funding round, which also included participation from Silicon Valley-based TriplePoint Capital and the CEOs of four unicorns in Latin America, including Uala, Loggi, Rappi and Madeira Madeira. 

Tyle, Felipe Delgado, Olivier Scialom, Renato Andrade and Guilherme Nosralla started Merama in December 2020 with a vision to be the “largest and best-selling set of brands in Latin America.” The company has dual headquarters in Mexico City and São Paulo.

Merama partners with e-commerce product sellers in Latin America by purchasing a stake in the businesses and working with their teams to help them “exponentially” grow and boost their technology while providing them with nondilutive working capital. CEO Tyle describes the company’s model as “wildly different” from that of Thras.io, Perch and other similar companies such as Valoreo because it does not aggregate dozens of brands.

“We will work with very few brands over time, and only the best, and work with our entire team to scale and expand these few businesses,” Tyle told TechCrunch. “We’re more similar to The Hut Group in the EU.”

Merama expects to sell $100 million across the region this year, more than two times the year before. It is currently focused on Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Already, the company operates “very profitably,” according to Tyle. So the cash raised will go primarily toward partnering with more brands, investing in building its technology platform “to aid in the automation of several facets” of its partners’ brands and in working capital for product innovation and inventory purchases. 

The 42-person team is made up of e-commerce leaders from companies such as Amazon, Mercado Libre and Facebook, among others. Tyle knows a thing or two about growing and building new startups, having co-founded Frontier Car Group, which sold to OLX/Naspers for about $700 million in 2019. He is also currently a venture partner at Balderton. 

It’s a fact that Latin American e-commerce has boomed, particularly during the pandemic. Mexico was the fastest-growing e-commerce market in 2020 worldwide, yet is still in its infancy, Tyle said. Overall, the $85 billion e-commerce market in Latin America is growing rapidly, with projections of it reaching $116.2 billion in 2023.

“Merchants are seeing hypergrowth but still struggle with fundamental problems, which creates a ceiling in their potential,” Tyle told TechCrunch. “For example, they are unable to expand internationally, get reliable and cost-effective working capital and build technology tools to support their own online presence. This is where Merama comes in. We seek to give our partners an unfair advantage. When we decide to work with a team, it is because we believe they will be the de facto category leader and can become a $1 billion business on their own.”

Merama collaborates with e-commerce giants such as Amazon and Mercado Libre, and several executives from both companies have invested in the startup, as well.

Daniel Waterhouse, partner at Balderton Capital, says his firm sees “huge potential” in Merama.

“In our two decades scaling businesses in Europe, we have seen firsthand what defines eCommerce category leaders,” he said in a written statement. “What they have already achieved is breathtaking, and it is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Valor Capital founding partner Scott Sobel believes that creating superior products that connect with consumers is the first key challenge D2C companies face.

“That is why we like Merama’s approach to partnering with these established brands and provide them unparalleled support to scale their operations in an efficient way,” he added.

PayPal’s ambition and uphill battle in China

Over the last few months, PayPal has been quietly gearing up for its expansion in China.

At the recent Boao Forum for Asia, China’s answer to Davos, the American payments giant said its strategy for China is not to challenge the duopoly of Alipay and WeChat Pay. Instead, it wants to focus on cross-border business and provide gateways both for Chinese merchants to collect funds and for Chinese consumers to pay for overseas goods.

It’s certainly a lucrative area. The market size of cross-border e-commerce in China surged from about 3 trillion yuan ($460 million) to nearly 6 trillion yuan between 2016 and 2021, according to market research firm iResearch.

But this space has also become crowded in recent years and PayPal may be late to the fray, said a China-based manager for an American tech giant, who asked for anonymity because he’s not authorized to speak to the media.

On Amazon, one of the largest marketplaces for Chinese exporters to sell online, there are already established options for merchants to collect funds. Setting up a bank account in a foreign country can be difficult for a small-time Chinese exporter, not to mention the high fees for remittance, so such merchants often seek third-party payments transfer solutions such as U.S.-based Payoneer and Chinese equivalents Pingpong and Lianlian, which charge a relatively small fee to deposit merchants’ sales into their bank accounts at home.

China has stringent policies for foreign exchange and electronic payments, but PayPal has already cleared the regulatory hurdles. In January, the American fintech titan became the first foreign firm to hold a license for online payment processor in China after it bought out shares in a local payments firm.

Obtaining the government greenlight is just the first step. The appeal of PayPal hinges largely on what it can offer to Chinese e-commerce exporters, who are now flooding the likes of Amazon and eBay.

“At the end of the day, customers only care which service is the cheapest and easiest to use,” said the China-based manager from the American firm.

“The Chinese cross-border payment solutions have achieved impressive results in terms of products, scale, and fees,” the person said. “I don’t think PayPal stands a chance.”

Exporters who build their own online stores instead of selling on mainstream marketplaces may still find PayPal necessary as a tool to accept payments from customers, given the app’s wide reach.

As for cross-border payments, PayPal is competing with Tencent’s WeChat Pay and Ant Group’s Alipay, which have long been ubiquitous in China. Both e-wallets have been aggressively growing their global partnerships to let China’s outbound travelers pay at overseas retailers like they would at home. Those shopping for overseas products domestically often use Chinese-owned e-commerce apps, which tend to have Alipay or WeChat Pay as their payment processor. Credit cards never became prevalent in China.

Cross-border payments have also become one of Ant’s main growth goals, according to the prospectus of its now-halted initial public offering. While overseas businesses accounted for just about 5% of the firm’s revenue in the second half of 2020, most of that segment came from cross-border payments. At the time, Ant also had plans to spend HK$52.8 billion, or 40%, of the net proceeds from its IPO on expanding its cross-border payment and merchant services as well as other overseas functionalities.

“It depends on whether PayPal is able to offer even lower fees than Ant,” said a person who previously worked on cross-border wallets for a Chinese company. “But PayPal itself is not famous for low fees.”

Look out Amazon Go — A Lisbon startup plans to offer autonomous stores to other retailers

Look out Amazon Go. A Lisbon startup plans to offer the same autonomous store technology to other retailers. Lisbon-based Sensei, a computer vision startup that allows convenience stores to offer check-out-free purchasing has secured a seed round of $6.5 million (€5.4M). The funding was led by Seaya Ventures and Iberis Capital, with participation from 200M Fund.

The startup will now scale its R&D and launch new stores. Its proprietary platform uses a blend of cameras, sensors, and AI to automate stores, both new and existing. The platform means retailers can manage inventory in real-time and also access insights into the way the stores are used.

Vasco Portugal, Sensei’s CEO and Co-founder said: “Sensei’s technology will help level the playing field for retailers to compete against digital giants such as Amazon. We aim to enhance the familiar and enjoyable customer shopping experience, making it seamless, convenient, and safe.”

Sensei is designed to work mainly with grab-and-go stores, forecourts, and similar retail formats. Competitors include Trigo which has raised $89 million.

The advantages of automated stores in a pandemic are obvious: customers no longer have to queue. Plus retailers can avoid stock-outs and staff turn into customer support.

“We are delighted to invest in a business that is part of the digitalization of commerce, a trend that is currently clearly being accelerated,” said Aris Xenofontos, Principal at Seaya Ventures.

Luis Quaresma, Partner at Iberis Capital, added: “Sensei brings tremendous efficiencies and cost-savings to the retail industry, while providing a much needed seamless checkout experience for consumers.”

Sensei was founded by Vasco Portugal (CEO, ex-MIT), Joana Rafael (COO),Nuno Moutinho (CTO) and Paulo Carreira (CSO).