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SAIF Partners rebrands as Elevation Capital, secures $400 million for its new India fund

SAIF Partners has raised $400 million for a new fund and rebranded the 18-year-old influential venture capital firm as it looks to back more early-stage startups in the world’s second largest internet market.

The new fund is SAIF Partners’ seventh for early-stage startups in India. Its previous two funds were each $350 million in size, and the firm today manages more than $2 billion in assets.

SAIF Partners started investing in Indian startups 18 years ago. The firm began as a joint venture with SoftBank and its first high-profile investment was Sify. But the two firms’ joint venture ended more than a decade ago, so the firm is now getting around to rebranding itself, Ravi Adusumalli, the managing partner of SAIF Partners, told TechCrunch in an interview.

The firm — which has five unicorns in its portfolio, including Paytm’s parent firm One97 Communications, food delivery startup Swiggy and online learning platform Unacademy — is rebranding itself as Elevation Capital.

“Elevation reflects our investment ethos and re-emphasises our commitment to the founders who help redefine our future. For our existing partners, it is a commitment of continued collaboration on our path-breaking journeys together. For our new partners, it is a promise to do all we can to achieve great heights together, from day one,” said Adusumalli.

SAIF Partners has backed more than 100 startups to date. The venture firm makes long-term bets on founders and backs young firms beginning their early years when they are raising their seed, pre-Series A and Series A financing rounds.

The venture firm invests in startups operating in a wide-range of sectors and plans to continue this strategy and add more areas of interest, said Deepak Gaur, a managing director at Elevation Capital, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“Enterprise SaaS is one area where we are spending a lot of resources,” he said. “We believe the time has come for this sector and we will see many global companies emerge from India.”

More than 15 startups in Elevation Capital’s portfolio are projected to become a unicorn in the next few years, according to Tracxn, a firm that tracks startups and investments in India. These include healthcare booking platform PharmEasy, app-based platform to book home services Urban Company, insurance tech startup Acko, digital loan platform Capital Float, real estate property marketplace NoBroker and online marketplace for gold Rupeek.

A number of SAIF Partners-backed startups, including IndiaMART, MakeMyTrip and Justdial, have become publicly listed companies, too.

Mukul Arora, a managing partner at SAIF Partners, said that the state of the Indian startup ecosystem has changed for the better in the past decade. “A few years ago, we were seeing many startups replicate a foreign company’s play in India. Today, we are seeing our ideas being replicated outside of the country. Someone is building a Meesho for Brazil,” he said.

The founders have also grown more sophisticated, said Mayank Khanduja. Elevation Capital has over three dozen employees, with about two-dozen focused on the investment size.

Elevation Capital’s new fund comes at a time when many established venture capital firms have also closed their new funds for India in recent months. In July, Sequoia Capital announced two funds — totaling $1.35 billion in size — for India. A month later, Lightspeed raised $275 million for its third Indian fund. Accel late last year closed its sixth fund in India at $550 million.

All of the LPs participating in Elevation Capital’s new fund, as was the case with previous funds, are U.S.-based, and the vast majority of them are nonprofits, said Adusumalli. Without disclosing any figures, he said the firm’s previous funds have performed very well.

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OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei leaves the company to start a new venture

Carl Pei, who co-founded the smartphone giant OnePlus in his 20s, has left the company, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

Pei played an instrumental role in designing the OnePlus smartphone lineup over the years, including the recently launched OnePlus Nord, which has been the company’s biggest hit to date. Outside Shenzhen, China, where OnePlus is headquartered, Pei has also been the face of the Chinese firm, appearing at trade conferences, interacting with loyal customers and giving interviews to the media.

In the early years of OnePlus, Pei devised various marketing strategies for best positioning the company’s products and creating hype about them. In 2014 and 2015, when OnePlus struggled with scaling its inventories, the company sold its phones through invites and several other clever marketing techniques, including one in which people were required to destroy their current phones to buy a new OnePlus smartphone.

Also in the early years of the company, Pei lived almost exclusively in low-cost hotels in China and India to better understand the market and easily travel to new cities. OnePlus is now one of the most successful premium smartphone makers in India and several other markets.

“We didn’t have proper product management. What we lacked in experience, we made up in hours,” he said in an earlier interview. He talked more about the company’s early days and the state of the smartphone market at Disrupt 2019.

Once he publicly asked Samsung to hire him so that he could learn more about overseeing operations and logistics. “So, Samsung, today I have a proposal for you: let me be your intern. Seriously. I would be honored to learn from your team about how you’ve been able to scale, run, and manage your business so successfully,” he wrote on his personal blog.

Pei reached out to Pete Lau in 2012 through social media. The two started OnePlus a year later. “He said, ‘I want to change the world.’ I thought this kid has ambitious thoughts and dreams. I think it comes from the heart and it’s very important. I think he has tenacity,” Lau recalled in an interview in 2015.

Years before they started OnePlus, Pei collaborated with a friend and sold white-labeled MP3 players in China.

Pei, 31, is not joining Samsung, but has clarity on what he wishes to do next. He is starting his own venture, according to a person familiar with the matter. Pei did not respond to a request for comment early Monday.

OnePlus did not respond to a request for comment.

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India approves Apple partners and Samsung for $143 billion smartphone manufacturing plan

Samsung and three major contract manufacturing partners of Apple are among 16 firms to win $6.65 billion incentives under India’s federal plan to boost domestic smartphone production over the next five years. These companies had applied for the incentive program in August.

In a statement Tuesday evening, Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) said these companies will be producing smartphones and other electronics components worth more than $143 billion over the next five years. In return, India will offer them an incentive of 4% to 6% on additional sales of goods produced locally over five years, with 2019-2020 set as the base year.

New Delhi’s move is aimed at significantly improving India’s manufacturing and exporting capacities and generating more local jobs. Around 60% of the locally produced products will be exported, the Indian ministry said. The companies will generate more than 200,000 direct employment opportunities in next five years and as many as 600,000 indirect employment opportunities during the same period, the ministry said.

The move is also a precursor to how the dynamics among major smartphone makers might change in India, the world’s second largest market, over the next few years. The inclusion of Foxconn, Wistron and Pegatron underscores how rapidly Apple plans to expand its local manufacturing capabilities in India. Wistron began assembling a handful of iPhone models in India three years ago, followed by Foxconn. Pegatron has yet to start production in India.

“Apple and Samsung together account for nearly 60% of global sales revenue of mobile phones and this scheme is expected to increase their manufacturing base manifold in the country,” the ministry said.

“Industry has reposed its faith in India’s stellar progress as a world class manufacturing destination and this resonates strongly with Prime Minister’s clarion call of AtmaNirbhar Bharat – a self-reliant India,” the ministry added.

Indian firms Lava, Bhagwati (Micromax), Padget Electronics, UTL Neolyncs and Optiemus Electronics have also received the approval. But missing from the list are Chinese smartphone makers Oppo, Vivo, OnePlus and Realme that had not applied for the program. Chinese smartphone vendors currently command about 80% of the Indian market. Samsung, which once led the Indian smartphone market, has faced intense competition from Xiaomi and Vivo in recent years.

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Months-old Uni raises $18.5 million seed round to expand India’s credit card market

The credit card industry in India appears to be stuck. According to industry estimates, between 30 million to 35 million people in the country today have at least one credit card, with up to 58 million being in circulation. Compare this to almost 1 billion debit cards.

One reason the vast majority of the population has not made the cut is because they don’t have a credit score. And so few people have a credit score because banks and credit card companies still rely on age-old methodologies to determine someone’s creditworthiness. For example most banks in India are only comfortable issuing credit cards to individuals who have full-time employment with one of a few hundred companies listed in dated spreadsheets the banks maintain.

Nitin Gupta, a veteran in the financial services business, has co-founded Uni

Nitin Gupta, through his new startup Uni, wants to address some of these issues. And he is one of the few individuals in the country who is positioned to do it. He co-founded PayU India, and then ran ride-hailing firm Ola’s financial services business.

During his tenure at PayU, the startup established a dominance in the payments processing business in the country. And at Ola, he launched Olamoney Postpaid, a service that allows customers to pay for their rides at a later stage. Olamoney, which was valued at $250 million last year, is now one of the largest financial services businesses in the country.

Serious VCs are now willing to bet on Gupta’s new venture.

On Tuesday, Uni announced it has raised $18.5 million in its seed financing round led by Lightspeed and Accel . The startup currently does not have a product, but it took Gupta only two months in the middle of a global pandemic to raise what is one of the largest seed financing rounds in India.

Jayanth Kolla, founder and chief analyst at consultancy firm Convergence Catalyst, said, an “$18.5 million seed funding for a two-month old startup without even a product or an MVP yet — basis purely on the founder’s credentials and history — is the first instance of a pure-play Silicon Valley type funding in India.”

In an interview with TechCrunch, Gupta said at Uni he is joined by two more senior executives — Laxmikant Vyas and Prateek Jindal — who have stellar records in the financial services business.

He declined to reveal what exactly Uni’s product — or line of products — would look like, but suggested that Uni is building the modern age consumer credit card.

“It would seem very obvious when it comes out, and people will wonder why nobody else thought of it,” he said, adding that he is working with multiple banks on partnerships.

The adoption of digital payments has grown exponentially in the country in the last five years, but the credit card business is still struggling to make inroads, he said, adding that he sees an opportunity to expand the credit card base to 200 million over the next five years.

“Nitin and Uni’s team are passionate about unlocking the power of financial services for millions of Indian consumers using new tech-powered solutions,” Bejul Somaia​, a partner at Lightspeed India, said. “We are excited about their mission and proud to support them from day one.”

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Indians Firms May Benefit From Trump’s H-1B Limits

When President Trump suspended a raft of visa programs in June, including temporary permits for highly technical foreign workers known as H-1B visas, he portrayed the order as a victory for the American work force. Further overhauls were in the works, he said weeks later, “so that no American worker is replaced ever again.”

The order is now in front of the courts, after a judge on Thursday blocked the order and ruled that Mr. Trump had overstepped his authority. The move will allow some companies, like Microsoft and Exxon Mobil, to bring temporary workers into the United States again. The issue will now go to an appeals court, which may rule in favor of Mr. Trump’s sweeping order.

But the fate of the program still remains in doubt. The Department of Homeland Security has submitted a new regulation for federal review that would toughen H-1B eligibility and impose new obligations on the companies trying to bring in foreign workers.

The uncertainty has thrown the plans of major companies in doubt and has already disrupted the lives of thousands of foreign workers, particularly those from India, who claim more than two-thirds of the H-1B visas issued each year.

The confusion might all be in vain, however. Experts say restrictions will do little to accomplish their stated goal of encouraging companies to hire Americans instead of workers from abroad. In fact, limits on H-1B visas may have the unintended effect of spurring American companies to shift even more work abroad.

Already, Indian outsourcing companies are working to cast the new restrictions as an opportunity to do just that.

“In America, there is a genius mix of homegrown and transplanted talent. The high level of global competition gives America its tech edge,” said Sandeep Kishore, the chief executive officer of Zensar Technologies, an Indian firm that employs more than 9,500 people globally.

More than 400 are on work visas in Zensar’s offices in the United States, he said, but more work could drift to India if companies cannot hire who they want.

The United States “risks giving up its edge,” Mr. Kishore said. “If we can’t bring this talent into the U.S., we’ll place them in our offices overseas.”

The pandemic, which has forced millions to work from home, could reinforce the idea that more American jobs can be done remotely.

The June suspension did not affect the foreign workers already in the United States on H-1B visas. But it upended the lives of those who were outside the country when the president issued his suspension.

Sonal Thakkar, a lead consultant at an Indian information technology firm in San Jose, Calif., rushed back to India last year to apply for an extension of her visa.

In March, her visa interview was canceled after India’s government imposed a nationwide lockdown to stop the coronavirus. Then, Mr. Trump’s suspension came.

This week, Ms. Thakkar received an email from the office of the U.S. Consulate General in Mumbai, saying her visa application had been “refused” and sent for “mandatory administrative processing.” It’s a process that could take months and she fears she could still be denied a visa after that.

Now, Ms. Thakkar is not sure when she can return to the United States and her husband, who is still in San Jose on an H-1B visa.

“I can’t sleep at night,” she said. “We’ve been together for six years. I am losing so many memories and I’m unable to create new ones.”

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Credit…Sonal Thakkar

An executive at Infosys, one of India’s biggest technology companies, said in a LinkedIn post that it arranged a chartered flight to bring back more than 200 workers and their families to India, after their American visas expired. The company declined to comment.

Even before Mr. Trump’s election, limiting the H-1B program had won some bipartisan support. The program allows companies to bring in well-educated or technically skilled workers from abroad temporarily. About 65,000 candidates are selected each year by lottery. The workers can bring their families, but they must apply for green cards separately if they want to remain in the United States once their work ends.

Some labor groups say companies use the program to bring in cheap labor. Often, they say, H-1B visa holders are not stars in their fields but hold skills that can be easily found domestically.

“There are very few people in this world who are truly innovative, and our economy depends on them,” said Russell Harrison, the director of government relations for the IEEE-USA, an association representing more than 170,000 technology professionals that supports H-1B restrictions.

Sensitive to the criticism, Indian outsourcing companies have long stressed plans to hire in the United States. In early September, Infosys announced it would hire 12,000 more Americans over the next two years.

Indian outsourcing companies dominated the H-1B lottery a decade ago, but sponsors now include some of the biggest names in American technology. Seven of the top 10 sponsors last year were American, including Amazon and Google, according to official citizenship data. About 15 percent of Facebook’s employees are H-1B holders.

If the government considerably limits the number of H-1B workers they can bring in, companies may send the work overseas instead.

“The work will go to India more because there is an abundance of high-quality college-educated tech labor in India,” said William Lazonick, an economist and professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, who has studied the globalization of business. “It is obviously an advantage if that higher-quality labor force is less expensive to employ than workers in the company’s home country.”

Research is scant, but at least one study has found that limits on H-1B visas lead to more hiring overseas. The study, by Britta Glennon, an assistant professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, compared periods of tightened H-1B restrictions with hiring by major firms and found greater hiring in places like China and India, which have a large pool of skilled workers, and Canada, which has looser immigration policies.

Like industries around the globe, the outsourcing business took a substantial hit during the coronavirus pandemic. The troubles were particularly acute in India, where many workers lack the equipment or the internet connections to work from home.

Tech companies struggled to source hundreds of thousands of laptops in the early weeks of the pandemic. They sent desktop computers to workers’ homes and enabled firewalls to fend off cyberattacks.

At Tata Consultancy Services, India’s largest information technology firm with more than 400,000 workers globally, these responsibilities fell on the shoulders of Amit Jain, the global head of I.T. infrastructure, based in Mumbai.

Mr. Jain, who worked at the company for 32 years, died in March after suffering a heart attack.

Image

Credit…The Jain family.

“He was overworked and extremely exhausted,” said his brother, Mukul Jain. “He told me he hadn’t slept in two to three days because he was helping employees in India, Europe and the U.S. to work from home.”

T.C.S. declined to comment about Mr. Jain’s death. A public relations firm that represents the company said that about 95 percent of T.C.S. employees were now working remotely.

Now India’s outsourcing companies are seeing their results stabilize. Share prices have risen as investors bet that companies looking to trim costs and reduce head count seek their services.

Indeed, companies have resumed looking toward outsourcing companies. In July, Vanguard, the mutual fund company, said it struck a deal with Infosys of India to assume 1,300 back office positions, like record keeping and technology services. Workers would be offered comparable jobs at Infosys, said a spokeswoman for Vanguard, adding that the decision was unrelated to the pandemic or the shifts in the H1-B program.

India’s outsourcing companies face long-term challenges. Cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence could eventually take over some of their tasks. The companies themselves are trying to move up the value chain to do more of the innovative technology work done in Silicon Valley and China.

“Most of the larger Indian I.T. companies haven’t expanded in that direction. They haven’t expanded to semiconductors, e-commerce, gaming and other technologies,” said Nitin Soni, a Singapore-based analyst and senior director at Fitch Ratings, a credit rating firm. “They have stuck to their core strengths, which are all in the realm of automation of organizational stuff.”

But companies rethinking the future of the office could offer them new opportunities.

“If you can get the same or better talent at lower cost, which allows you to do your business 24 hours, then that’s a good value proposition,” said Ajay Gupta, Mumbai-based partner at global consulting firm Kearney.

Of traditional offices, he added, “even companies within India are saying, ‘We don’t need this rigid infrastructure.’”

Vindu Goel contributed reporting from Berkley, Calif.

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Indian startups explore alliance and alternative app store to fight Google’s ‘monopoly’

Google, which reaches more internet users than any other firm in India and commands 99% of the nation’s smartphone market, has stumbled upon an odd challenge in the world’s second-largest internet market: Scores of top local entrepreneurs.

Dozens of top startups and firms in India are working to form an alliance and toying with the idea of launching an app store to cut their reliance on Google, five people familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The list of entrepreneurs includes high-profile names, such as Vijay Shekhar Sharma, co-founder and chief executive of Paytm (India’s most valuable startup), Deep Kalra of travel ticketing firm MakeMyTrip, and executives from PolicyBazaar, Sharechat and many other firms.

The growing list of founders expressed deep concerns about Google’s “monopolistic” hold on India, and discussed what they alleged was unfair and inconsistent enforcement of Play Store’s guidelines in the country.

The conversations, which began in recent weeks, escalated on Tuesday after Google said that starting next year developers with an app on Google Play Store must give the company a cut of as much as 30% of several app-related payments.

Dozens of executives “from nearly every top startup and firm” in India attended a call on Tuesday to discuss the way forward, some of the people said, requesting anonymity. A 30% cut to Google is simply unfeasible, people on the call unanimously agreed.

Vishal Gondal, the founder of fitness startup GOQii, confirmed the talks to TechCrunch and said that an alternative app store would immensely help the Indian app ecosystem.

TechCrunch reached out to Paytm on Monday for comment and the startup declined the request.

In recent months, several major startups in India have also expressed disappointment over several of the existing industry bodies, which some say have failed to work on nurturing the local ecosystem.

The tension between some firms and Google became more public than ever late last month after the Android-maker reiterated Play Store’s gambling policy, sending a shockwave to scores of startups in the country that were hoping to cash in on the ongoing season of Indian Premier League cricket tournament.

Google temporarily pulled Paytm’s marquee app from the Play Store citing repeat violation of its Play Store policies. Disappointed by Google’s move, Paytm’s Sharma said in a TV interview, “This is the problem of India’s app ecosystem. So many founders have reached out to us… if we believe this country can build digital business, we must know that it is at somebody else’s hand to bless that business and not this country’s rules and regulations.”

Google has sent notices to several firms in India including Hotstar, TechCrunch reported last month. Indian newspaper Economic Times reported on Wednesday that the Mountain View giant had also sent warnings to food delivery startups Swiggy and Zomato.

Vivek Wadhwa, a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, lauded the banding of Indian entrepreneurs and likened Silicon Valley giants’ hold on India to the rising days of East India Company, which pillaged India. “Modern day tech companies pose a similar risk,” he told TechCrunch.

Some of the participating members are also hopeful that the government, which has urged the citizens in India to become self-reliant to revive the declining economy, would help their movement.

Other than its reach on Android, Google today also leads the mobile payments market in India, TechCrunch reported earlier this year.

The giant, which has backed a handful of startups in India and is a member of several Indian industry bodies, invested $4.5 billion in Mukesh Ambani’s telecom giant Jio Platforms earlier this year.

Ambani, who runs oil-to-retails giant Reliance Industries and is India’s richest man, is an ally of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Jio Platforms has attracted over $20 billion in investment from Google, Facebook, and 11 other high-profile investors this year.

The voluminous investment in Jio Platforms has puzzled many industry executives. “I see no business case for Facebook investing in Jio beyond saying we need regulatory help,” said Miten Sampat, a high-profile angel-investor on a podcast published Wednesday.

Google said in July that it would work with Jio Platforms on low-cost Android smartphones. Jio Platforms is planning to launch as many as 200 million smartphones in the next three years, according to a pitch the telecom giant has made to several developers. Bloomberg first reported about Jio Platform’s smartphone production plans.

These smartphones, as is the case with nearly 40 million JioPhone feature phones in circulation today, will have an app store with only a few dozen apps, all vetted and approved by Jio, according to one developer who was pitched by Jio Platforms. An industry executive described Jio’s store as a walled-garden.

A possible viable option for startup founders is Indus OS, a Samsung-backed third-party store, which last month said it reaches over 100 million monthly active users. As of earlier this week, Paytm and other firms had not reached out to IndusOS, a person familiar with the matter said.

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Dear Sophie: Will October 2020 Visa Bulletin changes expedite my immigration case?

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

“Dear Sophie” columns are accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie:

I’ve been waiting for years for my green card. Is there any way to expedite my case? What does the October shift in Visa Bulletin priority dates mean for me?

—Waiting in Woodside

Dear Waiting:

Thanks! There are a lot of ways to speed up the immigration process. Great news — last week the State Department released the October 2020 Visa Bulletin, which significantly reduces the waiting time for many folks from around the world seeking green cards. Basically final action dates progressed for EB-1, EB-2 and EB-3 and are all current now if you can use categories besides being born in India or China! Feel free to check out my recent podcast on seven ways to expedite an immigration case and check out our upcoming free educational webinar on October 8 for the latest on H-1Bs and other immigration updates.

If you were born in India or China, dates for filing for Adjustment of Status and the National Visa Center also sped up significantly for individuals in these categories. Here’s a typical question I receive: “I’m currently in the U.S. in valid nonimmigrant status. If I was born in India or China, can I file my I-485 in October 2020?” See below to check your priority date and talk to an immigration attorney to see what you can file in October 2020!

Is my China/India priority date current in October?

Here’s an overview of how to figure out whether you can file your I-485 this month if you need to use the categories of being born in India or China:

  • Step 1. Double-check your I-140 I-797C approval notice to determine your category and priority date:
    • Sec. 203 (b)(1) → EB-1 Category
    • Sec. 203 (b)(2) → EB-2 Category
    • Sec. 203 (b)(3) → EB-3 Category
  • Step 2. Check out the October Visa Bulletin. To understand the Visa Bulletin in more detail:
    • The number of green cards the U.S. issues each year is capped based on the type of green card and the green card candidate’s country of birth
    • As my podcast on priority dates explains, it is the date your green card petition was submitted or the date your employer submitted your PERM labor certification application.
  • Step 3. Find the date in the cell at the intersection of your category and country.

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Apple launches its online store in India

For the first time in more than 20 years since Apple began its operations in India, the iPhone-maker has started selling its products directly to consumers in the world’s second largest smartphone market.

Apple launched its online store in India on Wednesday, which in addition to offering nearly the entire line-up of its products, also brings a range of services for the first time to consumers in the country. India is the 38th market for Apple where it has launched its online store.

Consumers in India can now purchase AppleCare+, which extends warranty on products, and access the trade-in program to get a discount on new hardware purchases. The company said it will also offer customers support through chat or telephone, and let users consult its team of specialists before they make a purchase. The company is also letting customers order customized versions of iMac, MacBook Air, Mac Mini and other Mac computers — something it started offline through its authorized partners only in late May in India.

The company is also offering customers the ability to pay for their purchases in monthly instalments. TechCrunch reported in January that the company was planning to open its online store in India in the quarter that ends in September. The company plans to open its first physical retail store in the country next year, it has said.

Jayanth Kolla, chief analyst at consultancy firm Convergence Catalyst, argued that the launch of the Apple’s online store in India is a bigger deal for the company than consumers in the country.

Apple typically starts investing in marketing, brand building and other investments in a market only after it launches a store there, he told TechCrunch.

Apple does oversee billboards and ads of iPhones and other products that are displayed in India, but it’s the third-party partners that are running and bankrolling them, said Kolla. “Apple might provide some marketing dollars, but those efforts are always led by their partners,” he said.

In recent years, Apple has visibly grown more interested in India, one of the world’s fastest growing smartphones markets. The company’s contract manufacturers today locally assemble the latest generation of iPhone models and some accessories — an effort the company kickstarted two years ago.

The move has allowed Apple to lower prices of some iPhone models in India, where for years the company has passed custom duty charges to customers. The starting price of iPhone 11 Pro Max is $1,487 in India, compared to $1,099 in the U.S. (It started to assemble some iPhone 11 models in India only recently.) The AirPods Pro, which sells at $249 in the U.S., was made available in India at $341 at the time of launch.

Apple has also been trying to open its store in India for several years, but local regulations made it difficult for the company to expand in the country. But in recent quarters, India has eased many of its regulations. Last year, New Delhi eased sourcing norms for single-brand retailers, paving the way for companies like Apple to open online stores before they set up presence in the brick-and-mortar market.

This year, India also launched a $6.6 billion incentive program aimed at boosting the local smartphone manufacturing. South Korean giant Samsung, and Apple’s contract manufacturing partners Foxconn, Wistron and Pegatron among others have applied for the incentive program.

Unlike most foreign firms that offer their products and services for free in India or at some of the world’s cheapest prices, Apple has focused entirely on a small fraction of the population that can afford to pay big bucks, Kolla said. And that strategy has worked fine for the company, Kolla argued. Apple commands the segment of premium smartphones in India.

That’s not to say that Apple has not made some changes to its price strategy for India. The monthly cost of Apple Music is $1.35 in India, compared to $9.99 in the U.S. Its Apple One bundle, which includes Apple Music, TV+, Arcade, and iCloud, costs $2.65 a month in India.

Some Apple customers say that even as they prefer the iPhone-maker’s ecosystem of products over Android makers’ offerings, they wish Apple made more of its services available in the country. A range of Apple services including Apple News and Apple Pay are still not available in India.

The launch of Apple’s online store in India comes weeks before the company is expected to unveil the new-generation iPhone models and a month before the festival of Diwali, which sees hundreds of millions of Indians spend lavishly.

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Indian mobile gaming platform Mobile Premier League raises $90 million

Mobile Premier League (MPL) has raised $90 million in a new financing round as the two-year-old Bangalore-based esports and mobile gaming platform demonstrates fast-growth and looks to expand outside of India.

SIG, early-stage tech investor RTP Global, and MDI Ventures led MPL’s $90 million Series C financing round, with participation from existing investors Sequoia India, Go-Ventures, and Base Partners. Times Internet and actor Salman Khan are also early investors in MPL. The new investment brings MPL’s to-date raise to $130.5 million. It was valued between $375 million to $400 million pre-money, according to a person familiar with the matter.

MPL operates a pure-play gaming platform that hosts a range of tournaments. The app, which has amassed over 60 million users, also serves as a publishing platform for other gaming firms. MPL, which does not develop games of its own, hosts about 70 games across multiple sports on the app today.

The Bangalore-based startup also offers fantasy sports, a segment that has taken off in many parts of India in recent years.

Because fantasy sports is only one part of the business, the coronavirus outbreak that has shut most real-world matches has not impeded the startup’s growth in recent months. The startup claimed it has grown four times since March this year and more than 2 billion cash transactions have been recorded on the app to date.

Sai Srinivas, co-founder and chief executive of Mobile Premier League, told TechCrunch in an interview that the new financing round validates that esports is here to stay and it is beginning to see its e-commerce moment.

“I believe that esports will be inducted by the Olympics way before than cricket does. And the market cap of esports will most probably will exceed those of all physical sports combined in the next 10 years,” he said.

“Even in an environment as challenging as the current one, we are impressed with the success and accessibility of the platform concept – giving users a unique variety of experiences and social interaction. MPL’s track record speaks for itself, so we’re excited to support the team as they grow and expand,” said Galina Chifina, Managing Partner at RTP Global, in a statement.

But since an aspect of MPL is about fantasy sports, its app is not available on the Google Play Store. Google Play Store prohibits online casino, and other kinds of betting, a guideline Google reiterated last week as it pulled Indian financial services platform Paytm from the app store for eight hours. Srinivas declined to comment on Google and Paytm’s episode. 

The startup plans to expand outside of India in the following months, said Srinivas. He did not name the new markets, but suggested that India’s neighboring countries as well as Japan and South Korea will likely be part of it. 

The startup also plans to expand its gaming catalog and offer more marketing support to third-party developers, who currently either sell license to MPL or work through revenue-sharing agreement with the Indian startup.

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Thanks to Google, app store monopoly concerns have now reached India

Last week, as Epic Games, Facebook, and Microsoft continued to express concerns about Apple’s “monopolistic” hold over what a billion people can download on their iPhones, a similar story unfolded in India, the world’s second largest internet market, between a giant developer and the operator of the only other large mobile app store.

Google pulled Paytm, the app from India’s most valuable startup, off of the Play Store on Friday. The app returned to the store eight hours later, but the controversy and acrimony Google has stirred up in the country will linger for years.

TechCrunch reported on Friday that Google pulled Paytm app from its app store after a repeat pattern of violations of Google Play Store guidelines by the Indian firm.

Paytm, which is locked in a battle against Google to win India’s payments market, has been frustrated at Google’s policies — which it argues gives Google an unfair advantage — for several past quarters over how the Android-maker is limiting its marketing campaigns to acquire new users, sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The explanation provided by Google to Paytm for why it pulled the Indian firm’s app this week from its app store is the latest attempt by the company to thwart the Noida-headquartered firm’s ability to acquire new users, Paytm executives said.

In a blog post Paytm posted Sunday evening (local India time), the Indian firm said Google took issue with the company for giving customers cashbacks and scratch cards for initiating transactions over UPI, a government-backed payments infrastructure in India that has become the most popular way for people to exchange money digitally in the country.

Paytm said it rolled out this new version of scratch cards that are linked to cricket on September 11. Users collected these cricket-themed stickers for sending money to others, or making transactions such as topping up credit on their phone or paying their broadband or electricity bill.

In a statement on Sunday evening, a Google spokesperson said, “offering cashbacks and vouchers alone do not constitute a violation of our Google Play gambling policies” and that Play Store “policies are applied and enforced on all developers consistently.”

But it’s arguably anything but consistent.

On September 18, Google told Paytm that it had pulled its app for not complying with Play Store’s “gambling policy” as it offered games with “loyalty points.” Paytm said that Google had not expressed any concerns over Paytm’s new marketing campaign prior to its notice on Friday, in which it revealed that Paytm app had been temporarily removed from the Play Store.

But Google itself is running a similar campaign linked to cricket in India, Paytm argues. (Why cricket? Cricket is immensely popular in India and one of the biggest cricket tournaments globally, Indian Premier League, kicked off its latest season on Saturday.)

Cricket-themed cashback offered by Paytm (left) and Google Pay (right) in India

Google Play Store in India has long prohibited apps that promote gambling such as betting on sporting events, and Google has raised concerns about Paytm’s marquee app promoting Paytm First Games, a fantasy sports app run by Paytm, in the past.

Paytm executives argued that PhonePe, a Walmart-owned payments app in India, also promoted Dream11, the most popular fantasy sports app in the country, and got away without any action.

Google also permits fantasy sports app operators — including Paytm — to advertise on Search in India.

“This is bullshit of a different degree,” Paytm chief executive Vijay Shekhar Sharma said of Google’s objection to Paytm offering cashback in a televised interview Friday. The removal of Paytm app was only on the grounds of Paytm offering cricket-themed cashback, he claimed. “Google is not allowing us to acquire new customers right now. That’s all what this is,” he added.

Google’s payments app, Google Pay, competes with Paytm in India. In fact, Google Pay is the largest payments app for peer-to-peer transaction between users in India and holds the largest market share in UPI.

Without identifying any names, Sharma, the poster child of Indian startup ecosystem, claimed that many founders in India have just accepted that it is Google that has the final say on any matter in India — and not the country’s regulatory agencies.

For Google, which reaches more users than any other company in India and whose Android operating system commands 99% of the local smartphone market, this kind of accusation is exactly what it needs to avoid in the country. The Silicon Valley search and advertising giant has launched a charm offensive in India, including a recently commitment to invest $10 billion — more than any other American or Chinese technology firm.

The timing for Google’s parent company, Alphabet, couldn’t be worse. Google is currently the subject of an antitrust complaint in India over an allegation that it has abused its market position to unfairly promote its mobile payments app in the country; and in the U.S., Congress has intimidated that it may pursue antitrust regulatory action against Alphabet and Apple over app store concerns.

In India, Google’s moves could have a devastating impact on businesses and everyday consumers.

Paytm is not just a payments app. It is also a fully licensed digital bank. And just an eight-hour of absence from the Play Store created a panic among a portion of its users. A source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that Paytm saw several people withdraw their fixed deposit in Paytm Payments Bank on Friday.

Anecdotally, TechCrunch heard of instances where vendors who previously preferred Paytm for accepting money digitally asked their customers to use a different payments method as they had heard that Paytm was “banned” in India.

Sharma said Google’s monopoly on Indian app ecosystem is of a magnitude unparalleled elsewhere in the world.

“If paying someone and getting a cashback is gambling, then the same rule should be applied to everyone,” said Sharma. “It’s disgraceful that we are standing here at the cusp of an internet revolution in India and we are being sanctioned by companies that are not governed by the law of this country.”

If this sentiment gained traction in India it could create challenges for Google’s future in the world’s second largest internet market.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is forcing a Chinese company to sell stakes to local firms to continue operations in the country. In a recent episode of Dithering podcast, Ben Thompson cautioned that Trump administration’s move — which some have argued is a long due tit for tat against Chinese companies (as China has long prevented U.S. firms from meaningfully operating in the world’s largest  internet market) — might encourage other open markets to do to American firms what it is doing to TikTok.

Several U.S. tech executives share these concerns.

“I’ve said this before, but a US TikTok ban would be quite bad for Instagram, Facebook, and the internet more broadly,” Instagram chief executive Adam Mosseri tweeted earlier this week. “If you’re skeptical keep in mind that most of the people who use Instagram are outside the US, as is most of our potential growth. The long term costs of moods countries making aggressive demands and banning us over the next decade outweigh slowing down one competitor today.”

India, which Google, Facebook, and many other tech giants count as their biggest market by users, has made several proposals in the past three years — including mandates that foreign firms store payments information of users locally in India and companies help local enforcement agencies identify the originator of questionable messages circulating on their platforms — that are widely seen as protectionist moves.

And India is not even that open anymore. New Delhi has also banned more than 200 Chinese apps including TikTok, UC Browser, and PUBG Mobile citing cybersecurity concerns in recent months. India has not made public what those cybersecurity concerns are and in its orders acknowledged that users had expressed concerns.

Enough noise against a foreign firm might just be enough to face an avalanche of serious troubles in India.

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