Sisense, an enterprise startup that that has built a business analytics business out of the premise of making big data as accessible as possible to users — whether it be through graphics on mobile or desktop apps, or spoken through Alexa — is announcing a big round of funding today and a large jump in valuation to underscore its traction. The company has picked up $100 million in a growth round of funding that catapults Sisense’s valuation to over $1 billion, funding that it plans to use to continue building out its tech, as well as for sales, marketing and development efforts.
For context, this is a huge jump: the company was valued at only around $325 million in 2016 when it raised a Series E, according to PitchBook. (It did not disclose valuation in 2018, when it raised a venture round of $80 million.) It now has some 2,000 customers, including Tinder, Philips, Nasdaq, and the Salvation Army.
This latest round is being led by the high-profile enterprise investor Insight Venture Partners, with Access Industries, Bessemer Venture Partners, Battery Ventures, DFJ Growth, and others also participating. The Access investment was made via Claltech in Israel and it seems that this led to some details of this getting leaked out as rumors in recent days. Insight is in the news today for another big deal: wearing its private equity hat, the firm acquired Veeam for $5 billion. (And that speaks to a particular kind of trajectory for enterprise companies that the firm backs: Veeam had already been a part of Insight’s venture portfolio.)
Mature enterprise startups proven their business cases are going to be an ongoing theme this year fundraising stories, and Sisense is part of that theme, with annual recurring revenues of over $100 million speaking to its stability and current strength. The company has also made some key acquisitions to boost its business, such as the acquisition of Periscope Data last year (coincidentally also for $100 million, I understand).
Sisense, bringing in both sleek end user products but also a strong theme of harnessing the latest developments in areas like machine learning and AI to crunch the data and order it in the first place, represents a smaller and more fleet of foot alternative for its customers. “We found a way to make accessing data extremely simple, mashing it together in a logical way and embedding it in every logical place,” explained CEO Amir Orad to us in 2018.
“We have enjoyed watching the Sisense momentum in the past 12 months, the traction from its customers as well as from industry leading analysts for the company’s cloud native platform and new AI capabilities. That coupled with seeing more traction and success with leading companies in our portfolio and outside, led us to want to continue and grow our relationship with the company and lead this funding round,” said Jeff Horing, Managing Director at Insight Venture Partners, in a statement.
To note, Access Industries is an interesting backer who might also potentially shape up to be strategic, given its ownership of Warner Music Group, Alibaba, Facebook, Square, Spotify, Deezer, Snap and Zalando.
“Given our investments in market leading companies across diverse industries, we realize the value in analytics and machine learning and we could not be more excited about Sisense’s trajectory and traction in the market,” added Claltech’s Daniel Shinar in a statement.
Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, TikTok, currently the world’s hottest social media app, welcomed the new decade by publishing its first transparency report as it encounters rising scrutiny from regulators around the world.
TikTok tries to demystify
The report, which arrived weeks after it tapped a group of corporate lawyers to review its content moderation policy, is widely seen as the short video app’s effort to placate the U.S. government. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, is currently probing the app for possible national security risks.
TikTok is owned by Beijing-based tech upstart ByteDance and has been rapidly gaining popularity away from its home turf, especially in the U.S. and India. As of November, it had accumulated a total of 1.5 billion downloads on iOS and Android devices, according to data analytics firm Sensor Tower, although how many materialized into active users is unknown.
The transparency report reveals the number of requests TikTok received from local regulators during the first half of 2019. Such orders include government requests to access user information and remove content from the platform. India topped the list with 107 total requests filed, followed by the U.S. with 79 requests and Japan at 35.
The numbers immediately sparked debates over the noticeable absence of China among the list of countries that had submitted requests. This could be because TikTok operates as a separate app called Douyin in China, where it claimed to have more than 320 million daily active users (in Chinese) as of last July.
Whether skeptics are sold on these promises remains to be seen. Meanwhile, one should not overlook the pervasive practice of self-censorship among China’s big tech.
“Chinese internet companies know so well where the government’s red line is that their self-regulation might even be stricter than what the government actually imposes, so it’s not impossible that [the TikTok report] showed zero requests from China,” a person who works at a Chinese video streaming platform suggested to me.
It’s worth revisiting why TikTok has caused a big stir on various fronts. Besides its nationality as a Chinese-owned app and breathtaking rise, the app presents a whole new way of creating and consuming information that better suits smartphone natives. It’s been regarded as a threat to Facebook and compared to Youtube, which is also built upon user-generated content. However, TikTok’s consumers are much more likely to be creators as well, thanks to lower barriers to producing and sharing videos on the platform, venture capitalist David Rosenthal of Wave Capital observed. That’s a big engagement driver for the app.
Another strength of TikTok, seemingly trivial at first sight, is the way it displays content. Videos are shown vertically, doing away the need to flip a phone. In a company blog post (in Chinese) on Douyin’s development, ByteDance recounted that most short-video apps budding in 2016 were built for horizontal videos and required users to pick from a list of clips in the fashion of traditional video streaming sites. Douyin, instead, surfaces only one video at a time, full-screen, auto-played and recommended by its well-trained algorithms. What “baffled” many early employees and interviewees turned out to be a game-changing user experience in the mobile internet age.
Douyin’s ally and enemy
A recent change in Douyin’s domestic rival Kuaishou has brought attention to the intricate links between China’s tech giants. In late December, video app Kuaishou removed the option for users to link e-commerce listings from Taobao, an Alibaba marketplace. Both Douyin and Kuaishou have been exploring e-commerce as a revenue stream, and each has picked its retail partners. While Kuaishou told media that the suspension is due to a “system upgrade,” its other e-commerce partners curiously remain up and running.
Left: Douyin lets creators add a “shop” button to posts. Right: The clickable button is linked to a Taobao product page.
Some speculate that the Beijing-based company could be distancing itself from Alibaba and moving closer to Tencent, Alibaba’s nemesis and a majority shareholder in Kuaishou. Yunfeng Capital, a venture firm backed by Alibaba founder Jack Ma, has also funded Kuaishou but holds a less significant equity stake. That Douyin has long been working with Alibaba on e-commerce might have also been a source of discordance between Kuaishou and Alibaba.
Well, we got to January 2nd before the latest angry resignation published by a tech executive on Medium.
Today’s installment comes from Ross LaJeunesse, who was head of international relations at Google and served for more than a decade in various roles at the company. He denounces what he sees as Google’s increasingly failed ambitions to be a company principled on human rights, and poses a series of questions about the future of tech and capitalism:
I think the important question is what does it mean when one of America’s marque’ companies changes so dramatically. Is it the inevitable outcome of a corporate culture that rewards growth and profits over social impact and responsibility? Is it in some way related to the corruption that has gripped our federal government? Is this part of the global trend toward “strong man” leaders who are coming to power around the globe, where questions of “right” and “wrong” are ignored in favor of self-interest and self-dealing? Finally, what are the implications for all of us when that once-great American company controls so much data about billions of users across the globe?
The whole read is interesting, and covers Google’s China operations, its Project Dragonfly censored search crisis, Saudi Arabia’s apps in Google Cloud and his own personal experience with Google HR.
But let’s focus in on the key question at the heart of this debate: does Google have the ability to be “good” or “evil” when it comes to tech’s influence on society? Does it have agency to make a difference on human rights in countries around the world?
My answer is: Google used to have a lot of agency, which is unfortunately declining very, very rapidly.
I’ve talked about the fracturing of the internet into different spheres of influence for quite literally years. Countries like China in particular, but also Russia, Iran and others, are seizing more and more exacting control of the internet’s plumbing and applications, subsuming the original internet’s spirit of openness and freedom and placing this communications medium under their iron fists.
As this fracturing has occurred, companies like Google, or Shutterstock, or even the NBA, have increasingly faced what I’ve called an “authoritarian straddle” — they can either work with these countries and follow the local rules, or they can just get out, with serious ramifications for their home markets.
Those are the extent of the choices these companies have. Shutterstock is not going to change China’s policy toward photos of the Tiananmen Square protests any more than Google can try to launch a search engine on the mainland or change Saudi Arabia’s deplorable women’s rights.
To have any agency here at all, you need a monopoly on a product or service so important that the dictatorship has to accept the terms you offer. In other words, these companies need extreme leverage, essentially the ability to go to the regimes and say, “No, fuck you, here’s how it is going to work, we’re going to follow human rights, and you have no choice in the matter.”
What tech companies are discovering — even massive giants like Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft — is that they really, truly don’t have that kind of leverage in these countries anymore. Not even Apple, which employs hundreds of thousands of manufacturing workers through its subcontractors in China, can move the needle in that country anymore. Iran shut off the internet for a period of time to dampen the intensity of political protests in that country. Russia last week tested shutting off the internet to make sure it can just pull the plug when it wants.
If whole countries can just flip the switch and turn off “tech,” exactly what leverage do any of these companies have in the first place?
And that diminution of power is a trend that tech companies, and particularly American tech companies, haven’t fully grappled with. They don’t really get a choice anymore in the decisions here. China has its own search engine, and increasingly, its own mobile phone ecosystem unencumbered by U.S. patents — and therefore U.S. policy. If Azure leaves Saudi Arabia, Alibaba Cloud is more than willing to step into the gap and make the money instead.
So when you get to LaJeunesse’s comments that he pushed Google internally to formalize some of its values:
My solution was to advocate for the adoption of a company-wide, formal Human Rights Program that would publicly commit Google to adhere to human rights principles found in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, provide a mechanism for product and engineering teams to seek internal review of product design elements, and formalize the use of Human Rights Impact Assessments for all major product launches and market entries.
… one can’t help but feel solace for an optimistic world where a better product design review process might have once improved global human rights.
The issue is far simpler though than it was in the past. You don’t need a human rights protocol, or some sort of review process for market entry. You are either in, or you are out. You either launch in these countries and deal with the inevitable human rights abuses and concomitant consumer protests in the home market, or you maintain your values and you walk away, ignoring the profit mirage from these regimes in the process.
That’s why I recently argued that Google and the NBA should just walk away. I still hold that belief. It’s also why I called on Shutterstock to leave China and return to its more open and free values. No U.S. tech company today has the leverage to make a dent on human rights the way they did a decade ago. The internet has fractured, data sovereignty is on the rise and there’s a binary choice to be made whether to engage or to flee. Ultimately, I take LaJeunesse’s side — these companies should walk, because there really isn’t much choice otherwise.
2019 brought more global attention to Africa’s tech scene than perhaps any previous year.
A high profile IPO, visits by both Jacks (Ma and Dorsey), and big Chinese startup investment energized that.
The last 12 months served as a grande finale to 10 years that saw triple digit increases in startup formation and VC on the continent.
Here’s an overview of the 2019 market events that captured attention and capped off a decade of rapid growth in African tech.
The story of the year is the April IPO on the NYSE of Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia. This was the first listing of a VC backed tech company operating in Africa on a major global exchange — which brought its own unpredictability.
Founded in 2012, Jumia pioneered much of its infrastructure to sell goods to consumers online in Africa.
With Nigeria as its base market, the Rocket Internet backed company created accompanying delivery and payments services and went on to expand online verticals into 14 Africa countries (though it recently exited a few). Jumia now sells everything from mobile-phones to diapers and offers online services such as food-delivery and classifieds.
The online retailer gained investor confidence out of the gate, more than doubling its $14.95 opening share price post IPO.
That lasted until May, when Jumia’s stock came under attack from short-seller Andrew Left, whose firm Citron Research issued a report accusing the company of fraud. The American activist investor’s case was bolstered, in part, by a debate that played out across Africa’s tech ecosystem on Jumia’s legitimacy as an African startup, given its (primarily) European senior management.
The entire affair was further complicated during Jumia’s second quarter earnings call when the company disclosed a fraud perpetrated by some of its employees and sales agents. Jumia’s CEO Sacha Poignonnec emphasized the matter was closed, financially marginal and not the same as Andrew Left’s short-sell claims.
Whatever the balance, Jumia’s 2019 ups and downs cast a cloud over its stock with investors. Since the company’s third-quarter earnings-call, Jumia’s NYSE share-price has lingered at around $6 — less than half of its original $14.95 opening, and roughly 80% lower than its high.
Even with Jumia’s post-IPO rocky road, the continent’s leading e-commerce company still has heap of capital and is on pace to generate over $100 million in revenues in 2019 (albeit with big losses).
The company plans reduce costs by generating more revenue from higher-margin internet services, such as payments and classifieds.
There’s a fairly simple equation for Jumia to rebuild shareholder confidence in 2020: avoid scandals, increase revenues over losses. And now that the company’s publicly traded — with financial reporting requirements — there’ll be four earnings calls a year to evaluate Jumia’s progress.
Jumia may not be the continent’s standout IPO for much longer. Events in 2019 point to Interswitch becoming the second African digital company to list on a global exchange in 2020. The Nigerian fintech firm confirmed to TechCrunch in November it had reached a billion-dollar unicorn valuation, after a (reported) $200 million investment by Visa.
Founded in 2002 by Mitchell Elegbe, Interswitch created much of the initial infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s (then) predominantly cash-based economy. Interswitch has been teasing a public listing since 2016, but delayed it for various reasons. With the company’s billion-dollar valuation in 2019, that pause is likely to end.
“An [Interswitch] IPO is still very much in the cards; likely sometime in the first half of 2020,” a source with knowledge of the situation told TechCrunch.
China-Africa goes digital
2019 was the year when Chinese actors pivoted to African tech. China is known for its strategic relationship with Africa based (largely) on trade and infrastructure. Over the last 10 years, the country has been less engaged in the continent’s digital-scene.
That was until a torrent of investment and partnerships this past year.
July saw Chinese-owned Opera raise $50 million in venture spending to support its growing West African digital commercial network, which includes browser, payments and ride-hail services.
In August, San Francisco and Lagos-based fintech startup Flutterwave partnered with Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba’s Alipay to offer digital payments between Africa and China.
In September, China’s Transsion — the largest smartphone seller in Africa — listed in an IPO on Shanghai’s new STAR Market. The company raised ≈ $394 million, some of which it is directing toward venture funding and operational expansion in Africa.
The last quarter of 2019 brought a November surprise from China in African tech. Over 15 Chinese investors placed over $240 million in three rounds. Transsion backed consumer payments startup PalmPay raised a $40 million seed, stating its goal to become “Africa’s largest financial services platform.”
In the new year, TechCrunch will continue to cover the business arc of this surge in Chinese tech investment in Africa. There’ll surely be a number of fresh macro news-points to develop, given the debate (and critique) of China’s role in Africa.
Nigeria and fintech
On debate, the case could be made that 2019 was the year when Nigeria become Africa’s unofficial capital for fintech investment and digital finance startups.
Kenya has held this title hereto, with the local success and global acclaim of its M-Pesa mobile-money product. But more founders and VCs are opting for Nigeria as the epicenter for digital finance growth on the continent.
A rough tally of 2019 TechCrunch coverage — including previously mentioned rounds — pegs fintech related investment in the West African country at around $400 million over the last 12 months. That’s equivalent to roughly one-third of all startup VC raised for the entire continent in 2018, according to Partech stats.
From OPay to PalmPay to Visa — startups, big finance companies and investors are making Nigeria home-base for their digital finance operations and outward expansion in Africa.
The founder of early-stage payment startup ChipperCash, Ham Serunjogi, explained the imperative to operate in the West African country. “Nigeria is the largest economy and most populous country in Africa. Its fintech industry is one of the most advanced in Africa, up there with Kenya and South Africa,” he told TechCrunch in May.
When all the 2019 VC numbers are counted, it will be worth matching up Nigeria to Kenya to see how the countries compared for fintech specific investment over the last year.
Tech acquisitions continue to be somewhat rare in Africa, but there were several to note in 2019. Two of the continent’s powerhouse tech incubators joined forces in September, when Nigerian innovation center and seed-fund CcHub acquired Nairobi based iHub, for an undisclosed amount.
The acquisition brought together Africa’s most powerful tech hubs by membership networks, volume of programs, startups incubated and global visibility. It also elevated CcHub’s Bosun Tijani standing across Africa’s tech ecosystem, as the CEO of the new joint-entity, which also has a VC arm.
In other acquisition activity, French television company Canal+ acquired the ROK film studio from Nigerian VOD company IROKOtv, for an undisclosed amount. The deal put ROK founder and producer Mary Njoku in charge of a new organization with larger scope and resources.
Many outside Africa aren’t aware that Nigeria’s Nollywood is the Hollywood of the continent and one of the largest film industries (by production volume) in the world. Canal+ told TechCrunch it looks to bring Mary and the Nollywood production ethos to produce content in French speaking African countries.
The on-demand motorcycle market in Africa has attracted foreign investment and moved toward EV development. In May, MAX.ng raised a $7 million Series A round with participation from Yamaha and is using a portion to pilot renewable energy powered e-motorcycles in Africa.
In August, the government of Rwanda announced a national policy to phase out gas-motorcycle taxis altogether in favor of e-motos, in partnership with early-stage EV startup Ampersand.
Africinvest teamed up with Cathay Innovation to announce the Cathay Africinvest Innovation Fund, a $100+ million capital pool aimed at Series A to C-stage startup investments in fintech, logistics, AI, agtech and edutech.
Like any tech ecosystem, not every startup in Africa killed it or even continued to tread water in 2019. Two e-commerce companies — DealDey in Nigeria and Afrimarket in Ivory Coast — closed up digital shop.
And South Africa based, Pan-African focused cryptocurrency payment startup Wala ceased operations in June. Founder Tricia Martinez named the continent’s poor infrastructure as one of the culprits to shutting down. A possible signal to the startup’s demise could have been its 2017 ICO, where Wala netted only 4% of its $30 million token-offering.
Africa’s startups go global
2019 saw more startups expand products and business models developed in Africa to new markets abroad. In March, Flexclub — a South African venture that matches investors and drivers to cars for ride-hailing services — announced its expansion to Mexico in a partnership with Uber.
In May, ExtraCrunch profiled three African founded fintech startups — Flutterwave, Migo and ChipperCash — developing their business models strategically in Africa toward plans to offer their products in other regions.
As we look to what could come in the new year and decade for African tech, it’s telling to look back. Ten years ago, there were a lot of “if” questions on whether the continent’s ecosystem could produce certain events: billion dollar startup valuations, IPOs on major exchanges, global expansion, investment from the world’s top VCs.
All those questionable events of the past have become reality in African tech, even if some of them are still in low abundance.
There’s no crystal ball for any innovation ecosystem — not the least Africa’s — but there are several things I’ll be on the lookout for in 2020 and beyond.
Two In the near term, start with what Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey may do around Bitcoin and cryptocurrency on his return to Africa (lookout for an upcoming TechCrunch feature on this).
I’ll also follow the next-phase of e-commerce in Africa, which could pit Jumia more competitively against DHL’s Africa eShop, Opera and China’s Alibaba (which hasn’t yet entered Africa in full).
On a longer-term basis, a development to follow is how the continent’s first wave of millionaire and billionaire tech-founders could disrupt dynamics around politics, power, and philanthropy in Africa — hopefully for the better.
More notable 2019 Africa-related coverage @TechCrunch