Taking Tesla private, WeWork and Uber earnings, and what happened to crypto

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week was a corker. We had Alex Wilhelm in-studio with our guest Minal Hasan, founder of K2 Global, and TechCrunch’s Danny Chriton jumped in from New York to help the crew dig through the biggest and best stuff from the last seven days.

It’s been busy, to say the least. First, we took a look at the Elon-Musk-taking-Tesla-private-situation, which has kept Markets Twitter in suspense for days. We didn’t really get to talk about the Grimes-Azealia Banks stuff, but, hey, stay in your lane and what not. Don’t forget that the latest Tesla upheaval comes on the heels of the firm’s pretty good earnings report.

Next, we took a look at earnings. Not of public companies, mind, but two unicorns that have become so large as to require regular financial disclosure. So, we took a peek into what Uber and WeWork had cooking. In short:

Put into simple terms, WeWork’s long-term lease situation has us worried, while Uber’s losses compared to its net revenue seem kinda alright given other financial metrics. Place your own bets, of course.

Moving along we took a dig into the NIO IPO, which you probably haven’t heard about yet. It’s another electric car company, but this time from China. And it’s raising a lot after having essentially zero history as a revenue-generating company. What could go wrong!

And finally, crypto and all that has happened to your favorite coin recently. Hasan was on hand with a grip of good points on the matter. She was a pretty damn great guest.

That’s it for this week, hang tight and come see us at Disrupt.

Production note: Alex’s mic was a bit whack until the 16-minute mark. Please forgive the issue, we noticed and fixed it as fast as we could. Hugs and love! 

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercast, Pocket Casts, Downcast and all the casts.

Messaging firm Line launches a dedicated crypto fund

Messaging company Line is continuing to burrow deep into the crypto space after it announced the launch of a $10 million investment fund.

The fund will be operated by Line’s Korea-based blockchain subsidiary Unblock Corporation, which is tasked with research, education and other blockchain-related services. The fund will be called Unblock Ventures and it’ll initially have a capital pool of $10 million but Line said that is likely to increase over time.

The company said the fund will be focused on early-stage startup investments, but it didn’t provide further details.

Line is listed in Tokyo and on the NYSE. This fund makes it one of the first publicly traded companies to create a dedicated crypto investment vehicle. The objective, it said, is “to boost the development and adoption of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology.”

Line claims nearly 200 million users of its messaging app, which is particularly popular in Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia. The company also offers a range of connected services that include payment, social games, ride-hailing, food delivery and more.

This marks Line’s second major crypto move this year following the launch of its BitBox exchange last month. It isn’t available in the U.S. or Japan right now but Line envisages closes ties with its messaging service and other features further down the line.

These moves into crypto come despite some serious downturn in the valuation of the space this year following record highs in January which saw the value of one Bitcoin touch nearly $20,000 and Ethereum, among others, surged. In the months since then, however, many cryptocurrencies have seen their valuations decline. This week, Ethereum dropped below $300 in what is its first major price crisis. Bitcoin has, for many years, risen and fallen although January’s valuations took the extremes to a new level.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

Ethereum’s falling price splits the crypto community

Hello And Welcome Back To The Latest Edition Of All The Cryptos Are Getting Rekt Right Now.

Crypto bloodbaths have become fairly common in 2018 — mainly because of the insane growth in 2017 — but we’ve not covered them all because they are so numerous and often include so-called ‘flash crashes’ or small drops, but the fall happening today is worth noting for several wider reasons.

Primarily that’s because this is a major test for Ether — the token associated with the Ethereum Foundation that is the second largest cryptocurrency by volume — has been on a downward spiral with little sign of change.

Ether, which is the preferred platform of choice for most developers building on the blockchain, is down nearly 17 percent over the past day. That’s erased billions of dollars in paper (crypto) value as the bear market for cryptocurrencies continues to pull markets south.

The drop also marks the first time ever that the price of an Ether has fallen below its valuation over one year: one Ether is worth $266 right now at the time of writing, versus $304 on August 14 2017. The token has been steadily falling since early May, when its peak value was $808, and as the lynchpin for many ICO project tokens, its demise has sent the value of most other tokens down, too.

Just looking at Coinmarketcap.com this morning, all but two of the top 100 tokens are down over the last 24 hours with many losing 10-25 percent of their value over the past day. Bitcoin, too, has dropped below $6,000, having topped $8,000 for a time last month.

Ether’s plummet below $300 has sparked a mixed debate among those in the crypto community. The token had been held as visionary, an improvement on Bitcoin that gives developers a platform to build on — whether it be decentralized apps, decentralized systems or more — but that hasn’t been reflected in in this months-long price retreat.

Certainly, two founders who spoke TechCrunch and have held ICOs expressed a belief that Ether “needs to find some price stability” to allow the focus to become about product and not just ‘get rich’ speculation. Of course, it helps that the two founders and many of those who held token sales have long since sold the Ether or Bitcoin they raised in exchange for fiat currency. Indeed, if their token sale was last year, the chances are they got a lot more real-world cash than they initially bargained for or would get now.

But still, the idea of consistency is shared by others who are in crypto professionally. That includes investors like Kenrick Drijkoningen, who is in the midst of raising a $10 million fund for LuneX, a spinout of Singapore-based VC firm Golden Gate Ventures.

In an interview last week, Drijkoningen told TechCrunch that raising a fund and doing deals in a ‘low tide’ market like now beats attempting to do the same amid a frothy period with hype and peak valuations — one Ether was worth nearly $1,400 in January, for example. A number of others VCs have long said that, ultimately, stability is good for the ecosystem.

Vitalik Buterin is the creator of Ethereum

But, on the other side, there are more pessimistic voices.

Among some investors canvassed by TechCrunch, the sense is that with the downturn of the ICO funding boom that fueled much of Ethereum’s rise, there may be less incentive to hold as the broader market’s interest in the cryptocurrency wanes.

For one Bitcoin bull, the intrinsic value of Bitcoin as an immutable, decentralized ledger acts as a more powerful draw than the perceived mutability and centralization that the Ethereum platform offers.

“People are also beginning to understand the unique value of an immutable, decentralized ledger, and recognize that Ethereum is not that,” the investor wrote in an email.

Another long-term problem that Ethereum faces, according to this investor, is that the promise of decentralized apps backed by the token is yet to be released. Crypto Kitties, a smash hit earlier this year, has faded and now there’s competition as Bitcoin’s Lightning Network is adding nodes and apps — referred to as LApps — which can operate in a similar but leverage the Bitcoin ledger.

It’s still early days, of course, and markets will always rise and fall, but this is the first big test for Ether and Ethereum. Beyond the sport of price speculation, it’ll be worth watching to see where this heads next.

Note: One of the authors of this post — Jon Russell — owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

California may mandate a woman in the boardroom, but businesses are fighting it

California is moving toward becoming the first state to require companies to have women on their boards –assuming the idea could survive a likely court challenge.

Sparked by debates around fair pay, sexual harassment and workplace culture, two female state senators are spearheading a bill to promote greater gender representation in corporate decision-making. Of the 445 publicly traded companies in California, a quarter of them lack a single woman in their boardrooms.

SB 826, which won Senate approval with only Democratic votes and has until the end of August to clear the Assembly, would require publicly held companies headquartered in California to have at least one woman on their boards of directors by end of next year. By 2021, companies with boards of five directors must have at least two women, and companies with six-member boards must have at least three women. Firms failing to comply would face a fine.

“Gender diversity brings a variety of perspectives to the table that can help foster new and innovative ideas,” said Democratic Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara, who is sponsoring the bill with Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins of San Diego.”It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s good for a company’s bottom line.”

Yet critics of the bill say it violates the federal and state constitutions. Business associations say the rule would require companies to discriminate against men wanting to serve on boards, as well as conflict with corporate law that says the internal affairs of a corporation should be governed by the state law in which it is incorporated. This bill would apply to companies headquartered in California.

Jennifer Barrera, senior vice president of policy at the California Chamber of Commerce, argued against the bill and said it only focuses “on one aspect of diversity” by singling out gender.

“This bill basically mandates that we hire the woman above anybody else who we may be fulfilling for purposes of diversity,” she said at a hearing.

Similarly, a legislative analysis of the bill cautioned that it could get challenged on equal protection grounds, and that it would be difficult to defend, requiring the state to prove a compelling government interest in such a quota system for a private corporation.

Five years ago, California was the first state to pass a resolution, authored by Jackson, calling on public companies to increase gender diversity. In response, about 20 percent of the companies headquartered in the state followed through with putting women on their boards, according to the research firm Board Governance Research. But the resolution was non-binding and expired in December 2016.

Other countries have been more proactive. Norway in 2007 was the first country to pass a law requiring 40 percent of corporate board seats be held by women, and Germany set a 30 percent requirement in 2015. Spain, France and Italy have also set quotas for public firms.

In California, smaller companies have fewer female directors. Out of 50 companies with the lowest revenues, 48 percent have no female directors, according to Board Governance Research. Only 8 percent of their board seats are held by women.

The 2017 study said larger companies did a better job of appointing women, with all 50 of the highest-revenue companies having at least one female director and 23 percent of board seats held by women.

“The main issue is still that a lot of companies headquartered here don’t have women on their boards,” said Annalisa Barrett, clinical professor of finance at the University of San Diego’s School of Business. “We quite often like to think of California as progressive and a leader on social issues, so that’s kind of disappointing.”

Barrett publishes an annual report of women on boards in California. Public companies are major employers in the state, and their financial performance has a big impact on public pension funds, mutual funds and investment portfolios. “Financial performance does really impact the broader community,” she said.

The National Association of Women Business Owners, sponsor of the bill, says an economy as big as California’s ought to “set an example globally for enlightened business practice.” In a letter of support, the association cites studies that suggest corporations with female directors perform better than those with no women on their boards.

One University of California, Davis study did find that companies with more women serving on their boards saw a higher return on assets and equity, but the author acknowledges this may not suggest a cause-and-effect.

Offering a white-labeled lending service in emerging markets, Mines raises $13 million

Emerging markets credit startup Mines.io has closed a $13 million Series A round led by The Rise Fund, the global impact fund formed by private equity giant TPG, and 10 others, including Velocity Capital.

Mines provides business to consumer (B2C) “credit-as-a-service” products to large firms.

“We’re a technology company that facilitates local institutions — banks, mobile operators, retailers — to offer credit to their customers,” Mines CEO and co-founder Ekechi Nwokah told TechCrunch.

Most of Mines’ partnerships entail white-label lending products offered on mobile phones, including non-smart USSD devices.

With offices in San Mateo and Lagos, Mines uses big-data (extracted primarily from mobile users) and proprietary risk algorithms “to enable lending decisions,” Nwokah explained.

“We combine a strong AI technology with full…deployment services — disbursement…collections, payments, loan management, and regulatory — wrap it up in a box, give it to our partners and then help them run it,” he said.

Mines’ typical client is a company “that has a large customer base and wants to avail credit to that customer base,” according to Nwokah. The startup generates revenue from fees and revenue share with partners.

Mines started operations in Nigeria and counts payment processor Interswitch and mobile operator Airtel as current partners. In addition to talent acquisition, the startup plans to use the Series A to expand its credit-as-a-service products into new markets in South America and Southeast Asia “in the next few months,” according to its CEO.

Mines sees itself as a “hardcore technology company based in Silicon Valley with a global view,” according to Nwokah. “At the same time, we’re very African,” he said.

The startup’s leadership team is led by three Nigerians — Nwokah, Chief Scientist Kunle Olukotun and MD Adia Sowho. The company came together after Olukotun (then and still a Stanford professor) and Nwokah (a then-AWS big data specialist) met in Palo Alto in 2014.

Looking through the lens of their home country Nigeria, the two identified two problems in emerging markets: low access to credit across large swaths of the population and insufficient tools for big institutions to put together viable consumer lending programs.

Due to a number of structural factors in these markets, such as low regulatory support, lack of credit data and tech support, “there’s no incentive for many banks and institutions to take risk on a retail lending business,” according to Nwokah.

Nwokah sees Mines’ end user market as “the more than 3 billion adults globally without access to credit,” and its direct client market as big “banks, retailers and mobile operators…who want to power digital credit tailored to these markets.”

Mines views itself as different from the U.S.’s controversial payday lenders by serving different consumer needs. “If you live in a country where your salary is not guaranteed every month, where you don’t have a credit card…where you have to pay upfront cash for almost everything you do, you need cash,” he said

The most common loan profile for one of Mines’ partners is $30 at 15 percent flat for a couple of weeks.

Nwokah wouldn’t name specific countries for the startup’s pending South America and Southeast Asia expansion, but believes “this technology is scalable across geographies.”

As part of the Series A, Yemi Lalude from TPG Growth (founder of The Rise Fund) will join Mines’ board of directors.

On a call with TechCrunch, Lalude named the company’s ability to “drive financial inclusion within a matter of seconds from mobiles devices,” their “local execution on the ground” and model of “partnering with many large organizations with their own balance sheets” as reasons for the investment commitment.

With Mines’ pending Asia and South America move they join Nigerian tech companies MallforAfrica.com and data analytics firm Terragon Group, who have expanded or stated plans to expand internationally this year.

 

Slack raises, Dropbox and Snap report earnings, and Magic Leap is real

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week Matthew Lynley and Alex Wilhelm were joined by 500 Startups CEO Christine Tsai for what turned out to be a super packed episode.

We kicked off with the latest from Slack: $400 million new dollars at a shiny, new $7 billion valuation, according to TechCrunch. The new capital comes after the firm raised a huge sum last year from SoftBank’s Vision Fund.

We dug into why the company would raise again, and what competitors it has left after the Atlassian deal.

Next up, two earnings reports. Continuing our tradition of keeping tabs on recent tech IPOs, we talked through Snap and Dropbox which reported earnings this week. Both lost ground after doing so. Ironically, they each beat financial expectations.

Snap ended up dropping value over a DAU decline, and Dropbox’s fall is still a bit undetermined. But by the time this episode ships, perhaps the market will have figured it out.

Next up we scrolled through the key reviews of the commercially available Magic Leap headset that is out at last. It’s a bit pricey, and a bit not-what-people-expected, but the well-funded startup seems to have avoided a complete miss. Its second-generation device may prove to be more impactful.

And finally, big news from China. As has become the norm on Equity, a few big Chinese rounds captivated us. This time it was the Manbang news, and what’s going on at Bytedance.

All that and we’ll be back in a week’s time. Stay cool!

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercast, Pocket Casts, Downcast and all the casts.

Neat is a challenger bank for early-stage startups and SMEs

With the growth in cross-border payment services and ‘challenger’ bank cards for consumers, you’d be forgiven for wondering where the options are for small business — where cash is particularly precious.

They do exist. One of the newer options is Neat, which is nested in Hong Kong but open for business worldwide.

The startup started off following the same track as the likes of Monzo, Starling and Revolut in Europe, developing a ‘new’ kind of account free of branch-based banking and tedious paperwork. But quickly the team realized that its service was being adopted in large by startups and SMEs as a way to get more flexible financing and perks like install balance/billing.

Neat still offers a consumer service in Hong Kong, but it places a heavy focus on developing its business service. Right now, that helps companies who can’t apply for credit cards get a Neat Mastercard which can be used for trivial (but important!) items such as monthly bills for services, flights, hotels and more. There’s no credit involved since the cards and account are debit-based.

Beyond the basics, Neat Business customers can use their account to handle employee payroll, business invoices, receive money and really pay all other bills that would require a credit card without using their personal one, as is so often the case for early-stage startups. More advanced features include expense cards for employees, while detailed company reporting and automated accounts are planned for introduction soon.

The company is based in Hong Kong, but Neat’s service can be used overseas, and indeed it already is.

Co-founder and CEO David Rosa, a former managing director of Citi Bank Asia Pacific, told TechCrunch that the company has customers in over 100 countries since account holders don’t need to be resident in, or incorporated in Hong Kong, to qualify for the service.

That said, a large portion is based in or associated with Hong Kong as it stands today, but Rosa — who started the business in 2015 alongside CTO Igor Wos — said he wants to change that and grow the userbase globally. The fact that Neat is working on introducing multi-currency solutions, as well as accountancy software integrations, is sure to help widen its appeal to those based outside of Hong Kong.

(Left to right) Neat co-founders Igor Wos (CTO) and David Rosa (CEO)

In a further validation, Neat recently snagged $2 million in funding to develop its tech and increase marketing. Those investors included Singapore’s Dymon Asia and Portag3 Ventures, which is the VC arm of Canada-based Power Corp, a public listed international management firm with a market cap of $9 billion. The Neat deal represents the Portag3 Ventures’ first investment in Asia and its CEO is bullish on how the duo can work together.

“From Hong Kong, we can reach the world. There’s a lot to be done here especially because of the China angle,” Rosa, who has lived in Hong Kong for 17 years, said.

With no white knight in sight, Tesla shares plummet from Musk’s tweet-related highs

Investors definitely aren’t stoked by the deafening silence coming from Tesla after its chief executive announced in a tweet that he plans to drop a fat sack of cash on public shareholders in a bid to take the company private.

Tesla’s shares have tumbled from their post-tweet highs as investors are now left with the embers of what is increasingly looking like a Musk-induced pipe dream to lift the economic burdens the company faces by delisting it.

At the close of the market Tesla shares were down $17.89 to $352.45, basically erasing the gains it had earned based on speculation of an acquirer at a $420 price tag.

Days after Tesla chief executive Elon Musk tweeted a $420 per share buyout offer for the company, no new details have emerged and several potential contenders for Tesla’s white knight have basically said “It wasn’t me.”

Reports from The New York Times, Axios, and Bloomberg indicate that none of the likely buyers — the private equity firms, multinational banks, sovereign wealth funds, or SoftBank — had approached or been approached by Tesla about the take-private transaction.

Dan Primack reported in Axios that “it’s none of the usual suspects on the debt side (i.e. big Wall Street banks). Nor many on the equity side, such as big strategics (not Apple or Uber), private equity (not KKR, Mithril, Silver Lake, TPG, etc.) nor deeper financial pockets (not SoftBank or Mubadala).”

That’s kind of everyone that would be involved in what would be the biggest take-private deal in history (Primack put the price tag for a full privatization at around $85 billion including debt).

Indeed, the New York Times noted that Wall Street banks are only now looking at ways to get in on the action.

From the Times’ report:

Executives at banks including Goldman Sachs and Citigroup are discussing ways a deal could be structured, angling to land the potentially prestigious assignment of taking the maker of electric cars off public markets, according to people familiar with the discussions. Bankers and lawyers on Wall Street said any deal is likely to be valued at $10 billion to $20 billion.

The $20 billion figure, far lower than what would be required for full privatization, assumes that Tesla is only looking to reduce the number of shareholders on its cap table so that it is no longer required to list on a major exchange. The argument is that with fewer shareholders, the company would not be subject to the whims of short sellers as easily as it is on the open markets.

That’s the publicly stated rationale that Musk has given for his desire to take the company private.

While some speculate about what Elon may have been smoking when he made his (potential) bid public on Twitter. SEC regulators are more concerned with whether he’d told investors he had a quality deal instead of just shake.

Clouding the picture is the large stake that Saudi Arabia’s investment fund had taken in the company right before Musk baked short sellers’ positions with the buyout tweet and the promise of financing.

Some conspiracy-minded speculators on HackerNews even theorized that the tweet was an attempt to forestall a hostile takeover from the Saudis.

No matter the rationale, Musk may have more to worry about than just Tesla’s stock price should more detailed plans of the financing not materialize. The Securities and Exchange Commission is knocking, and they don’t take too kindly to the practice of defrauding investors.