Momo, Vietnam’s top payment app, lands big Series C investment led by Warburg Pincus

Fintech in Southeast Asia continues to pique the attention of global investors. Alibaba, Tencent and others have jumped into the region and deployed hundreds of millions of dollars, and now Warburg Pincus is joining them. The U.S-headquartered PE firm has led a Series C investment in Vietnam’s Momo, which claims to be the country’s largest mobile […]

Fintech in Southeast Asia continues to pique the attention of global investors. Alibaba, Tencent and others have jumped into the region and deployed hundreds of millions of dollars, and now Warburg Pincus is joining them. The U.S-headquartered PE firm has led a Series C investment in Vietnam’s Momo, which claims to be the country’s largest mobile wallet company with 10 million downloads.

Momo already has some big-name investors; Standard Chartered led a $28 million round in 2016 while Goldman Sachs invested $5.7 million back in 2013.

The size of this new round isn’t being disclosed, but Pham Thanh Duc, CEO of M-Service — the parent company of Momo — said it is a record deal for an e-commerce or fintech startup in Vietnam. A lot of the biggest deals in Vietnam have been undisclosed, but one of the largest from last year was a $50 million-odd investment in e-commerce company Tiki from China’s JD.com which gives an indication of the size. The deal might even be as high as $100 million, that’s according to a Deal Street Asia report, although Pham declined to comment on the figure.

M-Service was founded over a decade ago, Momo is its take on digital payments in Vietnam, a market of nearly 100 million people, one-quarter of whom are aged under 25.

Momo started out offering digital payment via an e-wallet app. It has since expanded into utility bill payments and mobile top-up, as well as areas like movie tickets, airline flights and payment for goods and services at 100,000 payment points nationwide, including popular chains. The service recently began offering bill payment for loans, and Pham said it is developing a credit scoring system that will allow it to introduce financial services to users in partnership with financial institutions.

The playbook, he said, is very much based upon the success of Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay services in China, which went from payments to loans and investing and more.

While both of those Chinese internet giants have stepped into Southeast Asia with fintech investments in markets like Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, neither has entered Vietnam at this point. Pham said Momo has an ongoing dialogue with Alibaba, but there’s been no investment. Since neither Alibaba nor its fintech affiliate Ant Financial has an operating presence in Vietnam, he said the relationship is “just conversations” at this point. That’s certainly a pairing that is worth keeping an eye on as Alibaba aims to enlarge its presence in Southeast Asia, which — with a cumulative population of 600 million people, growing middle classes and rising internet access — is seen as a growth opportunity by Chinese tech companies.

Partner-wise, Momo works with the likes of Facebook and Google to provide payment for their services and it will soon begin working with Apple, Pham revealed.

While other businesses may be looking region-wide, Momo is not entertaining new market expansions at this point.

“For the next two to three years, we are still very focused on the domestic market,” Pham told TechCrunch in an interview. “There’s no short-term plan to expand to other countries [and] our main effort is focused on user base expansion in Vietnam.”

But, Pham said, he does expect that overseas players will enter Vietnam.

Grab Pay and GoPay [from ride-hailing duo Grab and Go-Jek) will come soon and even Alipay, but I think that for the last five years we have been the number one e-wallet provider,” he said. “We care much about competitors because we are leading the market… other players have had to imitate our model.”

Estimating that nearest-competitor ZaloPay, from Vietnam’s top chat app Zalo, may have around “one-tenth” of the user base Momo, Pham explained that he believes his company is around 12-18 months ahead of the competitor.

This new investment — which was led by a Warburg Pincus affiliate in Vietnam and closed last year — is aimed at fortifying that lead and grabbing a much larger slice of the Vietnamese population, which is tipped to rocket past 100 million by 2025.

Indonesian e-commerce unicorn Bukalapak raises $50M

The chances are you may be familiar with Tokopedia, especially after it commanded a $7 billion valuation last November when it raised $1.1 billion from investors like Alibaba and SoftBank’s Vision Fund, but fewer people outside of Indonesia are aware of another sizable local online retail unicorn: Bukalapak. Smaller than Tokopedia in size, the company is […]

The chances are you may be familiar with Tokopedia, especially after it commanded a $7 billion valuation last November when it raised $1.1 billion from investors like Alibaba and SoftBank’s Vision Fund, but fewer people outside of Indonesia are aware of another sizable local online retail unicorn: Bukalapak.

Smaller than Tokopedia in size, the company is valued at $1 billion — it became Indonesia’s fourth unicorn one year ago. The country, which is Southeast Asia’s largest economy and has a population of over 260 million, also counts Tokopedia, Go-Jek and Traveloka in the billion-dollar club.

Founded in 2010, Bukalapak claims an impressive two million orders per day and 50 million registered users. On the seller side, it said its core e-commerce business covers products from four million SMEs, 500,000 kiosk vendors and 700,000 ‘independent’ micro-businesses in Indonesia. Bukalapak means ‘open a stall’ in Indonesia’s Bahasa language, and anyone can open a shopfront on the platform.

This week, Bukalapak landed another notable funding milestone after it raised $50 million Series D round from the Mirae Asset-Naver Asia Growth Fund, a joint vehicle operated by Korean mutual fund Mirae Asset and Naver, the firm whose businesses include popular messaging service Line. This is the first time Bukalapak has disclosed the size of an investment in its business, although it did not give an updated valuation. The startup counts Alibaba’s Ant Financial, Indonesia telco Emtek, Sequoia India and Singaporean sovereign fund GIC among its existing backers.

Bukalapak is one of Indonesia’s leading online commerce platforms with four million registered users, a claimed two million daily transactions and a valuation of more than $1 billion

Bukalapak said it plans to use its new funds to grow opportunities for its SME retail partners and build out its tech platform, that’s likely to mean digital services such as insurance and a mobile wallet.

The company made a major push last year to partner with local ‘warung’ kiosk store retailers — who sell items much like street vendors — in a bit to differentiate itself from Tokopedia, which is much like Alibaba’s Taobao service for Indonesia, and develop an offering for consumers.

Beyond its e-commerce marketplace, Bukalapak also offers streaming and fintech products.

New policy puts revenue squeeze on China’s payments giants

The era that saw China’s mobile payments providers making handsome interest returns on client money has officially ended. Starting this week, non-bank payments companies must place 100 percent of their customer deposit funds under centralized, interest-free accounts as Beijing moves to rein in financial risks. In the past, third-party payments firms were allowed to hold […]

The era that saw China’s mobile payments providers making handsome interest returns on client money has officially ended.

Starting this week, non-bank payments companies must place 100 percent of their customer deposit funds under centralized, interest-free accounts as Beijing moves to rein in financial risks. In the past, third-party payments firms were allowed to hold pre-paid sums from buyers for a short period of time before transferring the money to merchants. This layout allowed companies like Alibaba’s payments affiliate Ant Financial and Tencent to earn interest by depositing customer money into bank accounts.

Exactly how much money Ant and Tencent derived from these deposits is unclear. Both companies declined to comment on the policy’s revenue implications but said they have complied with the rules and finished transferring all customer reserve funds to a centralized clearing system.

Here are some numbers to help grasp the scale of the lucrative practice. The central bank gave a two-year window for all payments firms to complete the transition as it gradually raised the reserve funds ratio, which climbed to 85 percent in November. By then, total customer funds deposited by non-bank payments companies into central custodians hit 1.24 trillion yuan ($180 billion), while another estimated 260 billion yuan was yet to come under regulated control, shows data published by the People’s Bank of China.

Collectively, the giants account for more than 90 percent of China’s third-party mobile payments and 34 percent of all third-party, internet-based payments (which include both PC and mobile transactions), according to research firm Analysys.

While the regulatory control surely has measurable revenue implication on payments firms, some experts point to another adverse consequence. “Now that payments companies are no longer putting deposits into their [partnering] banks, they lose bargaining power with these banks that charge commissions for handling their mobile payments,” an employee from a major payments firm told TechCrunch on the condition of anonymity.

Tencent doesn’t break down how much it makes from payments but the unit has grown rapidly over the past years while its major income source — video games — took a hit last year. Meanwhile Ant Financial has been diversifying its business to go beyond financial services. It has earnestly marketed itself as a “technology” company by opening its proprietary technologies to a growing list of traditional institutions like banks and insurance companies. Reuters reported earlier that technology services will make up 65 percent of Ant’s revenue in about four years, up from an estimated 34 percent in 2017.

WeChat is quietly ranking user behavior to play catch-up with Alibaba

Over one billion people leave behind trails of information on WeChat every day as they use the messenger to chat, read, shop, hail rides, rent umbrellas and run many other errands. And the Tencent app has quietly started using this type of signal to determine whether a user is worthy of perks such as deposit-free […]

Over one billion people leave behind trails of information on WeChat every day as they use the messenger to chat, read, shop, hail rides, rent umbrellas and run many other errands. And the Tencent app has quietly started using this type of signal to determine whether a user is worthy of perks such as deposit-free renting services.

The rating system, which the company calls the “WeChat Payments Score” in Chinese, soft-launched last November across eight cities and has been piloting on a small number of apps. Among them is the Tencent-backed power bank rental service Xiaodian, which waives deposits for users if their points hit a certain benchmark. It’s easy to imagine how the rewards mechanism can help nudge customers to try out WeChat’s panoply of in-house and third-party offerings down the road.

Exactly how WeChat calculates these points is unclear, but a test done by TechCrunch shows it factors in one’s shopping and contract-fulfilling records. We’ve reached out to Tencent for more details and will update the article when more information becomes available.

Alibaba’s affiliate Ant Financial — WeChat’s biggest contender in online payments — has been running a similar assessment engine called the “Sesame Credit” since 2015. Like WeChat’s, it measures several dimensions of user data including purchase behavior and capability to fulfil contracts. People with higher scores enjoy perks like deposit waivers when staying at a hotel, incentives that could keep customers in the house. Sesame points are available through Ant’s Alipay digital wallet that recently claimed to have crossed one billion users worldwide.

The WeChat payments score is reminiscent of Tencent’s short-lived credit-rating scheme. Indeed, digital footprints can also help China’s fledgeling financial system predict creditworthiness among millions of people without financial records. That’s why Beijing enlisted tech companies including Tencent and Ant in 2015 to come up with their own “social credit” scores under state-approved pilot projects.

Over time, regulators became wary of the mounting personal information used by online lending companies and moved to assert greater control over the whole credit-rating matter. In early 2018, it changed tack to crack down on private efforts — including a Tencent-run trial. Beijing subsequently set up Baihang Credit, the only market-based personal credit agency approved by China’s central bank. The government holds a 36 percent stake in Baihang. Ant, Tencnet and several other private firms also got to be part of the initiative, though they play complementary roles and hold 8 percent shares each.

While most countries use credit rating mainly as a financial credibility indicator, China has taken things a few steps further. By 2020, China aims to enrol everyone in a national database that incorporates not only financial but also social and moral history, a program that has raised concerns about privacy and surveillance.

Didi launches lending and insurance as new regulation threatens to lower driver numbers

Didi Chuxing, China’s dominant ride-hailing firm, is rolling out a range of financial and insurance services as it looks to fortify its service against a range of challenges in 2019. The company announced today that it is adding “protection” insurance and credit services for both passengers and drivers who use its platform. The former is […]

Didi Chuxing, China’s dominant ride-hailing firm, is rolling out a range of financial and insurance services as it looks to fortify its service against a range of challenges in 2019.

The company announced today that it is adding “protection” insurance and credit services for both passengers and drivers who use its platform. The former is aimed particularly at Didi drivers by offering health and car insurance that it claims will “lower the entry barrier for gig economy workers and broaden the scope of protection for more families.”

These new options will appear inside the Didi app. The company isn’t saying too much about them in detail, but they were trialed in 10 cities last year. Similar services have surfaced in Southeast Asia, where Didi ally Grab and its local rival Go-Jek have built out a range of fintech services, including payments and insurance.

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that this new Didi rollout comes amid changes that could inhibit its ability to attract and retain drivers. That’s because, as we explained this week, regulations that come into effect on January 1 require drivers to hold two licenses, a local residency permit that clears them for work and a permit to operate a vehicle for commercial purposes. That’s tricky, because the residential permit is difficult to obtain, while the commercial driving license adds a cost that may see some part-time drivers decide that driving with Didi doesn’t make sense financially.

While Didi has fought back to lower the barriers by allowing divers to rent licensed cars that it sources itself — “you supply the manpower, we provide the car,” its slogan reads — these changes could spell the end of China’s gig economy, at least in terms of ride-hailing as we know it.

It’s hard to criticize the introduction of tighter driver regulation given that two Didi passengers were murdered by their drivers last year. The company claims to have instituted a major restructuring that puts the focus on passenger safety, but government intervention was inevitable and it could mean a diminished pool of drivers from which to pick. A Didi representative told TechCrunch that the company has 31 million registered drivers on the platform, but the company didn’t provide an indicator of how many are active.

Nonetheless, for those who will continue with Didi or join its fleet in 2019, this new rollout is aimed at providing some of the financial services that they miss out on by not working a “regular” full-time job. Beyond insurance and lending, it will also see Didi offer deals on “new energy vehicles” through its partners. That will cover both buying cars outright, as well as leasing, trading and acquiring on finance, the company explained.

For Didi, these introductions will likely provide a welcome revenue boost. Little is known about the company’s finances, but it is reported to have lost more than half a billion dollars in the first half of 2018, mainly on subsidies. Using its extensive reach to help finance and retail partners tap into its registered user base will create a new source of income whilst also providing benefits to those users.

Government regulation isn’t Didi’s only challenge this year, as a number of rivals have sprouted up even as Meituan — the deep-pocketed “super app” company that went public in 2018 decided to pull away from ride-hailing due to financial concerns.

Traditional auto giants BMW and SAIC Motor — Volkswagen’s partner in China — are driving into the ride-hailing scene, while HelloBike, which just bagged significant funding from Alibaba’s Ant Financial and others, is entering, too.

These factors make 2019 an interesting year for Didi. Talk of the company going public was rife in previous years, but there seems to have been little progress made. Last year’s spin-out of its driver services business — a relatively asset-heavy unit — was tipped to be a precursor to a listing, but already Lyft and Uber have taken their first steps and Didi is reported to have stalled its efforts.

Alibaba-backed Hellobike bags new funds as it marches into ride-hailing

2018 has been a rough year for China’s bike-sharing giants. Alibaba-backed Ofo pulled out of dozens of international cities as it fought with a severe cash crunch. Tencent-backed Mobike puts a brake on expansion after it was sold to neighborhood services provider Meituan Dianping. But one newcomer is pedaling against the wind. Hellobike, currently the country’s […]

2018 has been a rough year for China’s bike-sharing giants. Alibaba-backed Ofo pulled out of dozens of international cities as it fought with a severe cash crunch. Tencent-backed Mobike puts a brake on expansion after it was sold to neighborhood services provider Meituan Dianping. But one newcomer is pedaling against the wind.

Hellobike, currently the country’s third-largest bike-sharing app according to Analysys data, announced this week that it raised “billions of yuan” ($1 = 6.88 yuan) in a new round. The company declined to reveal details on the funding amount and use of the proceeds when inquired by TechCrunch.

Leading the round were Ant Financial, the financial affiliate of Alibaba and maker behind digital wallet Alipay, and Primavera Capital, a Chinese investment firm that’s backed other mobility startups including electric automaker Xpeng and car trading platform Souche. The fledgling startup also got SoftBank interested in shelling out an investment, The Information reported in November. The fresh capital arrived about a year after it secured $350 million from investors including Ant Financial.

As China’s bicycle giants burn through billions of dollars to tout subsidized rides, they’ve gotten caught up in financial troubles. Ten months after Ofo raised $866 million, the startup is reportedly mulling bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Mobike is downsizing its fleet to “avoid an oversupply,” a Meituan executive recently said.

It’s interesting to note that while both Ofo and Hellobike fall under the Alibaba camp, they began with different geographic targets. By May, only 5 percent of Hellobike’s users were in China’s Tier 1 cities, while that ratio was over 30 percent for both Mobike and Ofo, a report by Trustdata shows.

This small-town strategy gives Hellobike an edge. As the bike-sharing markets in China’s major cities become crowded, operators began turning to lower-tier cities in 2017, a report from the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology points out.

The new contender is still dwarfed by its larger competitors in terms of user number. Ofo and Mobike command 43 million and 38 million unique monthly mobile installs, respectively, while Hellobike stands at 8 million, accroding to iResearch.

Hellobike’s ambition doesn’t stop at two-wheelers. In September, it rebranded its Chinese name to HelloTransTech to signify an extension into other transportation means. Aside from bikes, the startup also offers shared electric bikes, ride-hailing and carpooling, a category that became much contested following high-profile passenger murders on Didi Chuxing .

In May and August, two female customers were killed separately when they used the Hitch service on Didi, China’s biggest ride-hailing platform that took over Uber’s China business. The incidents sparked a huge public and regulatory backlash, forcing Didi to suspend its carpooling service up to this day. But this week, its newly minted rival Hellobike decides to forge ahead with a campaign to recruit carpooling drivers. Time will tell whether the latecomer can grapple with heightened security measures and fading customer confidence in riding with strangers.

How a Chinese anti-virus software maker builds a fintech firm to wrestle with giants

360 Finance, an online consumer loan platform that spun off from China’s anti-virus service giant 360 Group, has joined a raft of Chinese fintech companies to go public in the U.S. over the last two years. The company priced its initial public offering at $16.50 per share last Friday, raising $51 million by selling 3.1 […]

360 Finance, an online consumer loan platform that spun off from China’s anti-virus service giant 360 Group, has joined a raft of Chinese fintech companies to go public in the U.S. over the last two years.

The company priced its initial public offering at $16.50 per share last Friday, raising $51 million by selling 3.1 million American depositary shares. The stock ended its first day unchanged when escalating trade tensions have threatened to beat down shares of U.S.-listed Chinese firms.

360 Finance’s net loss widened to 572 million yuan, or $86.4 million, for the six months ended June 30 compared to 67 million yuan for the same period of 2017. The company notes in a regulatory filing that the jump was partly due to increased expenses from share-based compensation.

Meanwhile, the net income climbed from 60 million yuan in 2016 to 309 million yuan in 2017. 360 Finance drove most of its revenues from loan facilitation and post-origination services for consumers, although microcredit lending targeted at small enterprises will be a future focus, chief executive officer Xu Jun told TechCrunch.

360 Group, of which founder and CEO Zhou Hongyi owns a 14.1 percent stake in 360 Finance, marks the first in a clutch of Chinese internet-focused companies — including Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and JD.com — to see their consumer finance affiliates go public. Some of these services have mulled a flotation while others are pulling in fresh capital to fuel growth.

Ant Financial, the payments juggernaut controlled by Alibaba founder Jack Ma, reportedly postponed its U.S. IPO plans amid regulatory pressure and growing rivalry in China. Market watchers put its valuation at a whopping $150 billion after it snagged $14 billion from a Series C round in June.

WeBank, an online-only bank that counts Tencent as a major shareholder, has kept its valuation in the dark but an auction in November revealed that it was worth about $21.3 billion.

JD Finance, the financial affiliate of Alibaba’s main rival, said in June that it didn’t have an IPO plan as it raised $1.96 billion at a valuation of nearly $20 billion.

In April, search titan Baidu sold the majority of its financial services — which it rebranded to Du Xiaoman — to a consortium of investors in a deal worth $1.9 billion.

Despite its IPO milestone, 360 Finance faces intense rivalry at home. A report by management consulting firm Oliver Wyman shows that 360 Finance ranked fifth among China’s fintech platforms in terms of loan origination volume in the second quarter. Ant Financial took the top spot while WeBank, JD Finance and Baidu’s financial arm followed behind.

360 Finance is vying for consumer attention in an online world dominated by larger peers who are capitalizing on the enormous user base of their allies. Ecommerce behemoth Alibaba, for instance, had 666 million monthly active users on mobile devices as of September and Tencent’s WeChat messenger reached over 1 billion MAUs.

By comparison, 360 Group has about 500 mobile MAUs, which its financial partner believes could lead to an edge in marketing and risk management.

“As the largest cybersecurity company in China, 360 Security has an unfair advantage in fighting frauds,” said Xu.

That’s because 360 Security gleans reams of user behavioral data from its security browsers to determine borrowers’ “willingness” to repay loans.

“For instance, we flag those who often visit gambling sites or have installed a lot of personal lending apps,” said Xu. “On the other hand, companies such as ecommerce services only have insights into whether users are ‘able’ to repay by looking at their shopping history. The willingness to repay becomes very relevant when you are giving out smaller loans. People are usually able to repay 4,000 yuan [$580], but not everyone is willing to do so.”

The executive added that the 360 Security partnership also helps lower user acquisition costs, though he doesn’t want to rely on one marketing channel in the long run. 40 percent of the proceeds raised in the IPO will go towards promotion.

360 Group currently contributes over 22.7 percent of the lending firm’s borrowers. App stores bring about two-thirds of the traffic while the remaining comes from news feed ads in popular apps like TikTok and user engagement on social media, according to the CEO.

Lazada, Alibaba’s Southeast Asia e-commerce business, gets a new CEO

Alibaba has reshuffled the leadership at Lazada, its e-commerce firm in Southeast Asia, after CEO Lucy Peng — an original Alibaba co-founder — stepped down to be replaced by Lazada executive president Pierre Poignant after just nine months in the role. Alibaba owns more than 90 percent of Lazada but it has been involved in the business […]

Alibaba has reshuffled the leadership at Lazada, its e-commerce firm in Southeast Asia, after CEO Lucy Peng — an original Alibaba co-founder — stepped down to be replaced by Lazada executive president Pierre Poignant after just nine months in the role.

Alibaba owns more than 90 percent of Lazada but it has been involved in the business since April 2016 when it bought 51 percent of Lazada for $1 billion from Rocket Internet. It invested a further $1 billion last year to increase its equity to around 83 percent and earlier this year it raised its stake even higher with an additional $2 billion injection.

That last investment saw Peng, formerly executive chairman of Ant Financial, become Lazada CEO in place of Max Bittner, who had been installed by former owner Rocket Internet back in 2012. Poignant also arrived at the company in 2012 and he worked alongside Bittner as Lazada’s COO. Since then, he has been head of its logistics division before a brief five-month stint as executive president prior to this new role.

Lazada operates in six countries across Southeast Asia, but there are very few indicators of how the business is performing.

Alibaba’s own financial reports bundle Lazada with the firm’s other international businesses. Collectively, they grossed RMB 4.5 billion ($650 million) in the last quarter. That’s an impressive 55 percent revenue jump but it accounts for a small portion of Alibaba’s total revenue of RMB 85.15 billion ($12.4 billion) in Q2 2019.

Lazada took part in the recent 11/11 Singles’ Day sale mega day. Alibaba as a whole grossed $31 billion in GMV during the 24-hour period but the company did not break out numbers for Lazada. Lazada itself said it broke records, but the only data it provided was that 20 million shoppers were “browsing and grabbing” deals on its site — you’ll note that statement doesn’t explicitly provide sales. We did ask at the time but Lazada declined to give sales or revenue numbers.

Against that backdrop, it is hard to say whether Peng was brought in as a stop-gap while Lazada searched for a new CEO, or whether her original remit was to preside over a revamp of the business. Lazada has certainly gone about installing new executive teams in many local markets, according to sources within the company, but it isn’t clear whether Peng is being recalled as planned or whether things didn’t work out as expected.

The news follows Alibaba’s second investment in Tokopedia, Indonesia’s leading e-commerce platform, yesterday.

Speaking on the rivalry, Tokopedia CEO William Tanuwijaya told TechCrunch that he sees differences between the two.

“We see Lazada having a different business model than us: Lazada is a hybrid of retail and marketplace model, whereas Tokopedia is a pure marketplace. Lazada is [a] regional player, we are a national player in Indonesia,” he said.

Payment service Toss becomes Korea’s newest unicorn after raising $80M

South Korea has got its third unicorn startup after Viva Republica, the company beyond popular payment app Toss, announced it has raised an $80 million round at a valuation of $1.2 billion. This new round is led by U.S. firms Kleiner Perkins and Ribbit Capital, both of which cut their first checks for Korea with this […]

South Korea has got its third unicorn startup after Viva Republica, the company beyond popular payment app Toss, announced it has raised an $80 million round at a valuation of $1.2 billion.

This new round is led by U.S. firms Kleiner Perkins and Ribbit Capital, both of which cut their first checks for Korea with this deal. Others participating include existing investors Altos Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, Goodwater Capital, KTB Network, Novel, PayPal and Qualcomm Ventures. The deal comes just six months after Viva Republica raised $40 million to accelerate growth, and it takes the company to nearly $200 million raised from investors to date.

Toss was started in 2013 by former dentist SG Lee who grew frustrated by the cumbersome way online payments worked in Korea. Despite the fact that the country has one of the highest smartphone penetrations rates in the world and is a top user of credit cards, the process required more than a dozen steps and came with limits.

“Before Toss, users required five passwords and around 37 clicks to transfer $10. With Toss users need just one password and three steps to transfer up to KRW 500,000 ($430),” Lee said in a past statement.

Working with traditional finance

Today, Viva Republica claims to have 10 million registered users for Toss — that’s 20 percent of Korea’s 50 million population — while it says that it is “on track” to reach a $18 billion run-rate for transactions in 2018.

The app began as Venmo -style payments, but in recent years it has added more advanced features focused around financial products. Toss users can now access and manage credit, loans, insurance, investment and more from 25 financial service providers, including banks.

Fintech startups are ‘rip it out and start again’ in the West –such as Europe’s challenger banks — but, in Asia, the approach is more collaborative and assistive. A numbe of startups have found a sweet spot in between banks and consumers, helping to match the two selectively and intelligently. In Toss’s case, essentially it acts as a funnel to help traditional banks find and vet customers for services. Thus, Toss is graduating from a peer-to-peer payment service into a banking gateway.

“Korea is a top 10 global economy, but no there’s no Mint or Credit Karma to help people save and spend money smartly,” Lee told TechCrunch in an interview. “We saw the same deep problems we need to solve [as the U.S.] so we’re just digging in.”

“We want to help financial institutions to build on top of Toss… we’re kind of building an Amazon for the financial services industry,” he added. “We try to aggregate all those activities, covering saving accounts, loan products, insurance etc.”

Former dentist SG Lee started Toss in 2013.

Lee said the plan for the new money is to go deeper in Korea by advancing the tech beyond Toss, adding more users and — on the supply side — partnering with more companies to offer financial products.

There’s plenty of competition. Startups like PeopleFund focus squarely on financial products, while Kakao, Korea’s largest messaging platform, has a dedicated fintech division — KakaoPay — which rivals Toss on both payment and financial services. It also counts the mighty Alibaba in its corner courtesy of a $200 million investment from its Ant Financial affiliate.

Alibaba and Tencent tend to move in pairs as opposites, with one naturally gravitating to the rivals of the other’s investees as recently happened in the Philippines. It’s tricky in Korea, though. Tencent is caught in limbo since it is a long-standing Kakao backer. But might the Ant Financial deal spur Tencent into working with Toss?

Lee said his company has a “good relationship” with Tencent, including the occasional home/away visits, but there’s nothing more to it right now. That’s intriguing.

Overseas expansion plans

Also of interest is future plans for the business now that it is taking on significantly more capital from investors who, even with the most patient money out there, eventually need a return on their investment.

Lee is adamant that he won’t sell, despite Viva Republica increasingly looking like an ideal entry point for a payment or finance company that has missed the Korean market and wants in now.

He said that there are plans to do an IPO “at some point,” but a more immediate focus is the opportunity to expand overseas.

When Toss raised a PayPal-led $48 million Series C 18 months ago, Lee told TechCrunch that he was beginning to cast his eyes on opportunities in Southeast Asia, the region of over 650 million consumers, and that’s likely to see definitive action next year. The Viva Republica CEO said that Vietnam could be a first overseas launchpad for Toss.

“We’re thinking seriously about going beyond Korea because sooner or later we will hire saturation point,” Lee said. “We think Vietnam is quite promising. We’ve talked to potential partners and are currently articulating ideas and strategy materialized next year.

“We already have a very successful playbook, we know how to scale among users,” Lee added.

While the plan is still being put together, Lee suggested that Viva Republica would take its time expanding across Southeast Asia, where six distinct countries account for the majority of the region’s population. So, rather than rapidly expanding Toss across those markets, he indicated that a more deliberate, country-by-country launch could be the strategy with Vietnam kicking things off in 2019.

The Toss team at HQ in Seoul, Korea

Korea rising

Toss’s entry into the unicorn club — a vaunted collection of private tech companies valued at $1 billion or more — comes weeks after Coupang, Korea’s top e-commerce company, raised $2 billion at a valuation of $9 billion.

While that Coupang round came from the SoftBank Vision Fund — a source of capital that is threatening to become tainted given its links to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — it does represent the first time that a Korea-based company has joined the $100 billion mega-fund’s portfolio.

Some milestones can be dismissed as frivolous, but these two coming so close together are a signal of increased awareness of the potential of Korea as a startup destination by investors outside of the country.

While Lee admitted that the unicorn valuation “doesn’t change a lot” in daily terms for his business, he did admit that he has seen the landscape shift for Korea’s startup ecosystem — which has only two other privately-held unicorns: Coupang and Yello Mobile.

“More and more global VCs are aware that South Korea is a really good opportunity to do a startup. It is getting easier for our fellow entrepreneurs to pitch and get access to global funds,” he said, adding that Korea’s top 25 cities have a cumulative population (25 million) that matches America’s top 25.

Despite that potential, Korea has tended to focus on its ‘chaebol’ giants like Samsung — which accounts for a double-digital percentage of the national economy — LG, Hyundai and SK. That means a lot of potential startup talent, both founders and employees, is locked up in secure corporate jobs. Throw in the conservative tradition of family expectations, which can make it hard for children to justify leaving the safety of a big company, and it is perhaps no wonder that Korea has relatively fewer startups compared to other economies of comparable size.

But that is changing.

Coupang has been one of the highest profile examples to follow, alongside the (now public) Kakao business. But with Viva Republica, Toss and a charismatic dentist-turned-founder, another startup story is being written and that could just inspire a future generation of entrepreneurs to rise up and be counted in South Korea.

Skype co-founder snags $105M for fintech lending venture in Southeast Asia

A fintech whale quietly going about its business in Southeast Asia has come out from under the radar after Oriente, a Hong Kong-based business headed by Skype’s first employee, announced that it has raised a whopping $105 million. It may not be well known at this point, but the company has some serious street cred. Oriente […]

A fintech whale quietly going about its business in Southeast Asia has come out from under the radar after Oriente, a Hong Kong-based business headed by Skype’s first employee, announced that it has raised a whopping $105 million.

It may not be well known at this point, but the company has some serious street cred.

Oriente was started in 2017 by Geoff Prentice, a Skype co-founder and ex-Chief Strategy Officer, Hubert Tai, a founder of Ping An’s Lufax and Chinese unicorn dangdang.com, and investor Lawrence Chu. The trio came together when Prentice moved on to Atomico — the VC firm started by Skype’s founders after they sold to eBay — and Chu, then with investment firm BlackPine, invited him to invest in Lufax where he bumped into Tai.

“I was going to start this fund with Lawrence to focus on old and new economy stuff together. We went to look at Southeast Asia financial services [businesses] and we were like ‘there’s nothing here.’ So I literally begged Hubert out of retirement and said ‘you’ve got to do this,'” Prentice, very much a straight shooter, told TechCrunch in an interview.

“Silicon Valley isn’t my cup of tea,” he added.

The project is definitely a far cry from the latest buzz in The Valley.

Oriente is aimed at providing digital credit and financial products in Southeast Asia, a region of 650 million people where the digital economy is predicted to triple over the next six years. Right now, it operates in the Philippines and Indonesia where its two services — Cashalo and Finmas, respectively — offer credit services for consumers using a mixture of online and offline. It is taking steps to launch in Vietnam but Prentice told TechCrunch that there is no other expansion plan at this point.

The goal is to digitizing financial services and help more people in Southeast Asia get access to banking services. While Southeast Asia is often reported to have a booming middle class, many are out of reach of that.

For example, in the Philippines — Oriente’s debut market — some 77 percent of the 105 million population is unbanked, according to a recent report. Of those unbanked, some 60 percent said that they do not operate an account due to a lack of money. The numbers are similar across other parts of Southeast Asia, yet mobile access is surging — Southeast Asia has more internet users than the entire U.S. population — offer a potential bridge to improve the situation.

Oriente’s first product was Cashalo which launched in the Philippines in June 2018

The services are digital but they use offline touch points to reach new customers. In the latter case, Oriente’s local businesses deploy salespeople in major malls and stores to help customers learn about the services themselves and the concept of payback schemes. Oriente takes a slight twist on the take. Instead of offering payback on single items, the services cover a basket of items to allow customers to pay a series of items on credit.

To help that offline push, Oriente has recruited top name investors that include a group of family offices that span members of the Berjaya Group, JG Summit Holdings and Sinar Mas. Though that is not the entities themselves, they have the potential to be highly strategic. Malaysia’s Berjaya is in property, consumer marketing and more; JG Summit operates retail, banking and even aviation in the Philippines; while Indonesia’s Sinar Mas covers financial services, telecom and more.

“If you want to build the financial services behemoth of Southeast Asia in the next 10 years how do you do that? Well, it’s going to be on a digital platform obviously but then, of course, we also have to have KYC people, you need your own collections people, you need offline sales… you need to take the best of the best technology part and then you merge it with the best of the other things,” Prentice said of the offline-online focus.

The business itself already has some 1,200 employees spread across seven offices in Asia — including a 200-person engineering team in Shanghai, composed of many former Lufax workers — with 60,000 borrowers in the Philippines alone. The Indonesian business is newer, having launched only in August and in beta, but the company expects to reach “millions” of lenders across its three markets next year.

One big challenge from an engineering perspective is constructing basic infrastructure, such as credit scoring, KYC and assessment. Existing credit bureau systems don’t cover many of the population, so Oriente is investing heavily in data-based systems to develop signals for credit assessment and, importantly, to combat fraud.

There are plenty of others battling the same fight in the region, with Ant Financial — Alibaba’s fintech affiliate — in particular setting up businesses across the region with a focus on payments and digital financial services. Grab, the ride-hailing firm that purchased Uber’s local business earlier this year, has also ventured into payments with plans for financial services as its nemesis Go-Jek has done already. That’s quite the backdrop for a battle with Oriente and its unique blend of experienced founders from the East and West and strategic corporate backers.

Update: The original version of this post has been updated to correct the investors.