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Alex Mike

The race is on for companies building e-commerce empires by rolling up smaller, promising businesses that sell via Amazon and other marketplaces and growing by using some economies of scale to operate them as one. In the latest development, Berlin Brands Group has raised $240 million that it says it will be using to acquire smaller but promising enterprises in Europe and North America — specifically the U.S. — that are already making between $1 million and $100 million in sales via marketplaces like Amazon.

The funding is coming in the form of debt, not equity, and it is coming specifically from UniCredit, Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, BBG founder and CEO Peter Chaljawski said in an interview. BBG is profitable and earlier this year it committed more than $300 million off its balance sheet for buying up and operating companies, and so with this debt round, it now has $540 million for that purpose.

“We’re in a wonderful situation with a proven business model, and this is the cheapest money you could get,” he said of the decision to go for debt, a choice often made by startups that are in capital-intensive modes but either reluctant or do not need to give up equity to raise capital to scale if they are generating cash. In the case of BBG it’s the latter, since the company is profitable. “This is better than equity. BBG does not have any debt as of 2020, and we had cash on hand for our first acquisitions, 20 brands that we bought in cash from our balance sheet. Now we want to accelerate that even more.”

BBG has to date mostly built its business around starting up and scaling its own in-house brands that sell on Amazon and elsewhere — starting first with home audio equipment, coming out of Chaljawski’s own interests in sound technology from a previous life as a budding dance music DJ. Its brands include Klarstein (kitchen appliances), auna (home electronics and music equipment), Capital Sports (home fitness) and blumfeldt (garden).

In a big move to scale and build out what it’s established itself, last year BBG shifted over to the roll-up model: leveraging a more buying power to cut better deals with manufacturers and other suppliers, consolidating some of the other functions like marketing, and providing a more comprehensive set of analytics around what is selling best, who is buying, how best to market an item, and more. It says it has 1.3 million square feet of warehouse space in Europe, Asia and the U.S. and is one of the biggest Amazon sellers in Europe today.

The basic idea of rolling up businesses that sell on the Amazon platform with FBA (Fulfillment by Amazon) has been around for years in fact, but the notable and more recent shift is that it has taken on a startup profile in part because of how some of the latest entrants are leveraging big data analytics, the latest innovations in manufacturing and logistics technology and a founder-led, e-commerce ethos to grow the model.

“Without data, you would go nowhere in this business,” Chaljawski said. “But on top of that, there is something you can’t pull from market data — a toolbox of manufacturing and engineering expertise that we use to evaluate products.” He says that BBG’s data scientists build algorithms that millions of products, and hundreds of thousands of sellers, to produce the data that it uses both to source potential acquisitions and to run the business.

U.S. players like Thrasio — which itself closed a $1.2 billion Series C for the same purposes: rolling up and scaling — have led the charge. But in recent months we’ve seen a number of others also move into the space, buoyed by hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from investors very keen to ride the e-commerce wave and the vision of tapping into some of the economies of scale and the marketplace model that have been such a juggernaut for Amazon.

It’s a two-sided marketplace, and Amazon has focused primarily on earning money from operating the marketplace itself and sales to consumers, so that leaves a huge opportunity on the table for someone else (or as it happens, many others) to tackle the opportunity to address the needs and services of the other side of that marketplace: the sellers.

In addition to BBG and Thrasio, others in the same space include Branded, which launched its own roll-up business on $150 million in funding earlier this year; SellerXHeydayHeroesPerch, among several others. Even removing the very-highly capitalized Thrasio and BBG from the equation, these companies have collectively raised or committed from their own balance sheets hundreds of millions of dollars to buy up small but promising third-party merchants.

If that sounds like a crowded market, well, it probably is. These are also startups, after all, and so the chances that some of these roll-up consolidators will not be that skilled at running multiple companies — with their disparate supply chains, customer bases, replacement cycles and marketing strategies — are as risky as in any other area of e-commerce startup interest.

On the other hand, though, there are a lot of opportunities to play for here.

By one estimate, there are about 5 million third-party sellers on Amazon today, a number that appears to be growing exponentially, with more than 1 million sellers joining the platform in 2020 alone. Out of those, Thrasio estimates that there are probably 50,000 businesses selling on the Amazon platform with FBA (Fulfillment by Amazon) that are making $1 million or more per year in revenues.

We have pointed out before that within that bigger number of merchants, there are a huge amount of clones and companies of questionable quality. What is interesting is that there are distinct companies, built around more originality and flair, swimming in that sea: some of them have broken through and floated, while others that have not.

So for a company like BBG, the opportunity lies in the fact that for many of these smaller but promising merchants, they have not been built with longer-term growth visions in place. The merchants might not be prepared for the kind of scaling, investment or operational commitment that would need to be made to keep their businesses going, or they simply don’t have the appetite for it. BBG’s selling point — as it is with others in this space — is that they do.

And BBG’s added pitch is that they can help open another door, to Europe. In the region, Amazon on average has about a 10% market share of marketplaces, BBG estimates, with regional players accounting for more marketplace activity than in the U.S. BBG not only has the links into selling on these other marketplaces, but the promise is that it can help improve how a brand will sell on Amazon itself in the region, given its traction in the market already. Conversely, it hopes to do the same for European brands by giving them a better window into selling in the U.S.

Looking ahead, BBG may well tap an equity round in the near future to bring on investors to shape its own growth and set a valuation for the company, Chaljawski said. He also is realistic about the profusion of companies like his, and is “sure” there will be some casualties down the road. He also believes that we may start to see some emerge around specific verticals as an alternative.

“Yes, I’m sure consolidation will happen, but I also think that we’ll see some specialization, with roll-ups focusing on one vertical or another. I think it will be a mix,” he said.

Alex Mike

A startup tapping into the concept of the circular economy, where people don’t buy items outright but pay an incremental amount to use them temporarily, has raised some funding to scale its business in Europe and beyond. Grover, a Berlin-based startup that runs a subscription model where people can rent out consumer electronics like computers, smart phones, games consoles and scooters for set fees, has picked up €60 million ($71 million).

The funding is coming in the form of €45 million in equity and €15 million in venture debt.

The company, which as of September last year had 100,000 subscriptions and now has around 150,000, said it aims to triple its active users by the end of this year to 450,000 by the end of 2021. It will be using the funds both to expand to more markets: both to grow its business in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands (where it’s already operating) and to launch in Spain and the US, and to add in more product categories into the mix, including health and fitness devices, consumer robots and smart appliances.

And, it plans to invest in more innovation around its rental services. These have seen a new wave of interest in particular in the past year of pandemic life, which has put a strain on many people’s finances; definitely made it harder to plan for anything, including what gadgets you might need one week or the next; and turned the focus for many people on consuming less, and getting more mileage out of what they and others already have.

“Now more than ever, consumers value convenience, flexibility and sustainability when they shop for and use products. This is especially true when it comes to technology and all of the possibilities that it has to offer — whether that’s productivity, fun, or staying in touch with our loved ones,” said Michael Cassau, CEO and founder of Grover, in a statement. “The fresh funding allows us to bring these possibilities to even more people across the world. It enables us to double down on creating an unparalleled customer experience for our subscribers, and to push the boundaries of the most innovative ways for people and businesses to access and enjoy technology. The strong support from our investors confirms not only the important value our service brings to people, but also Grover’s vast growth potential. We’re still just scratching the surface of a €1 trillion global market.”

JMS Capital-Everglen led the Series B equity round, with participation also from Viola Fintech, Assurant Growth, existing investors coparion, Augmentum Fintech, Circularity Capital, Seedcamp and Samsung Next, and unnamed founders and angel investors from Europe and North America, among others. Kreos Capital issued the debt.

Samsung is a strategic investor: together with Grover it launched a subscription service in December that currently covers select models from its S21 series. “Samsung powered by Grover,” as it’s called, has started out out in Germany, so one plan may be to use some of this investment to roll that out to other markets.

The funding is coming on the heels of a year when Berlin-based Grover said its business grew 2.5x (that is, 150%). Its most recent annual report noted that it had 100,000 active users as of September of last year, renting out 18,000 smartphones, 6,000 pairs of AirPods and over 1,300 electric scooters in that period. It also said that in the most recent fiscal year, it posted net revenues of about $43 million, with $71 million in annual recurring revenue, and tipping into profitability on an Ebitda basis.

It raised €250 million ($297 million) in debt just before the start of the pandemic, and previously to that also raised a Series A of $44 million in 2018, and $48 million in 2019 in a combination of equity and debt in a pre-Series B. It’s not disclosing its valuation.

The company’s service falls into a wider category of startups building services around the subscription economy model, which has touched asset-intensive categories like cars, but also much lighter, internet-only consumables like music and video streaming.

Indeed, Grover has been regularly referred to as the “Netflix for gadgets,” in part a reference to the latter company’s history starting out by sending out physical DVDs to people’s homes (which they returned when finished to get other films under a subscription model).

Similar to cars and films, there is definitely an argument to be made for owning gadgets on a subscription. The pricier that items become — and the more of them that there are battling for a share of consumer’s wallets against many of the other things that they can spend money to own or use — the less likely it is that people will be completely happy to fork out money or build in financing to own them, not least because the value of a gadget typically depreciates the minute a consumer does make the purchase.

At the same time, more consumers are subscribing, and often paying electronically, to services that they use regularly: whether it’s a Prime subscription, or Spotify, the idea with Grover — and others that are building subscriptions around physical assets — is to adopt the friction-light model of subscribing to a service, and apply it to physical goods.

And for retailers, it’s another alternative to offer customers — alongside buying outright, using credit, or offering by-now-pay-later or other kinds of financing, in order to close a deal. Shopping cart abandonment, and competition for shoppers online, are very real prospects, so anything to catch incremental wins, is a win. And if they are working in a premium (cost-per-month of use, say) to give customers possession of the gadget in question, if they manage to secure enough business this way, it actually might prove to be even more lucrative than outright sales, especially if the maintenance of those goods is offloaded to a third party like Grover.

Although some people have regularly been wary of the idea of used consumer electronics, or other used goods, that has been shifting. There have been a number of companies seeing strong growth in the last year on the back of helping consumers resell their own items. This has been helped in part by buyers being more focused on spending less (and sellers maybe earning back some money in the process), but also being keen to reduce their own footprints in the world by using items that are already out in circulation. In Europe alone, last week, Brighton-based MPB raised nearly $70 million for its used-camera equipment marketplace. Other recent deals have included used-goods marketplace Wallapop in Spain raising $191 million and clothing-focused Vestiaire Collective raising $216 million.

What is interesting here is — whether it’s a sign of the times, or because Grover might have cracked the subscription model for gadgets — the company seems to be progressing in an area that has definitely seen some fits and bumps over the years.

Lumoid out of the U.S. also focused on renting out tech gear but despite finding some traction and inking a deal with big box retailer Best Buy, it failed to raise the funding it needed to run its service and eventually shut down.  It’s also not alone in trying to tackle the market. Others in the same space include Tryatec and Wonder, which seems to be focused more on trying out technology from startups.

The big question indeed is not just whether Grover will find more of a market for its rental/subscription model, but also whether it has cracked those economics around all of the supply chain management, shipping and receiving goods, reconditioning or repairing when needed, and simply keeping strong customer service throughout all of that. As we’ve seen many times, a good idea on one level can prove extremely challenging to execute on another.

Alex Mike

Students, government employees, and members of non-profit organizations can get access to Extra Crunch at a discounted rate of $50/year (plus tax). That’s 50% off our annual price point. You’ll also be grandfathered in at the discounted price for future years until you cancel. 

How to claim the discount:

  • Use a government, non-profit, .edu or university email address and send a message to our customer support team at [email protected] Please let them know that you are seeking the student, government, or non-profit discount. 
  • The team will respond within 24 hours with a unique link to claim your discount.

If you are part of a student group like an entrepreneurial club and interested in getting access for a large number of users, reach out to [email protected] to learn more about custom discounts on large groups.

What is Extra Crunch?

Extra Crunch is a members-only community from TechCrunch focused on helping startup teams and founders get ahead. Membership features thousands of articles, including investor surveys, market analysis, late-stage company deep dives, and how-tos and interviews on fundraising, growth, monetization and other work topics. You also can browse and use TechCrunch.com more efficiently without the distraction of banner ads, and stay up-to-date through our Extra Crunch members-only newsletters.

Another benefit of Extra Crunch is discounts on events. If you have interest in attending TechCrunch events, you can save 20% on tickets. Once you join, reach out to our customer service team with the event name to receive a discount code for any TechCrunch event.

For questions about this offer, reach out to customer support at [email protected]

Alex Mike

Son Nguyen, founder and chief executive officer of Dat Bike on one of the startup's motorbikes

Son Nguyen, founder and chief executive officer of Dat Bike

Dat Bike, a Vietnamese startup with ambitions to become the top electric motorbike company in Southeast Asia, has raised $2.6 million in pre-Series A funding led by Jungle Ventures. Made in Vietnam with mostly domestic parts, Dat Bike’s selling point is its ability to compete with gas motorbikes in terms of pricing and performance. Its new funding is the first time Jungle Ventures has invested in the mobility sector and included participation from Wavemaker Partners, Hustle Fund and iSeed Ventures.

Founder and chief executive officer Son Nguyen began learning how to build bikes from scrap parts while working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. In 2018, he moved back to Vietnam and launched Dat Bike. More than 80% of households in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam own two-wheeled vehicles, but the majority are fueled by gas. Nguyen told TechCrunch that many people want to switch to electric motorbikes, but a major obstacle is performance.

Nguyen said that Dat Bike offers three times the performance (5 kW versus 1.5 kW) and 2 times the range (100 km versus 50 km) of most electric motorbikes in the market, at the same price point. The company’s flagship motorbike, called Weaver, was created to compete against gas motorbikes. It seats two people, which Nguyen noted is an important selling point in Southeast Asian countries, and has a 5000W motor that accelerates from 0 to 50 km per hour in three seconds. The Weaver can be fully charged at a standard electric outlet in about three hours, and reach up to 100 km on one charge (the motorbike’s next iteration will go up to 200 km on one charge).

Dat Bike’s opened its first physical store in Ho Chi Minh City last December. Nguyen said the company “has shipped a few hundred motorbikes so far and still have a backlog of orders.” He added that it saw a 35% month-over-month growth in new orders after the Ho Chi Minh City store opened.

At 39.9 million dong, or about $1,700 USD, Weaver’s pricing is also comparable to the median price of gas motorbikes. Dat Bike partners with banks and financial institutions to offer consumers twelve-month payment plans with no interest.

“These guys are competing with each other to put the emerging middle class of Vietnam on the digital financial market for the first time ever and as a result, we get a very favorable rate,” he said.

While Vietnam’s government hasn’t implemented subsidies for electric motorbikes yet, the Ministry of Transportation has proposed new regulations mandating electric infrastructure at parking lots and bike stations, which Nguyen said will increase the adoption of electric vehicles. Other Vietnamese companies making electric two-wheeled vehicles include VinFast and PEGA.

One of Dat Bike’s advantages is that its bikes are developed in house, with locally-sourced parts. Nguyen said the benefits of manufacturing in Vietnam, instead of sourcing from China and other countries, include streamlined logistics and a more efficient supply chain, since most of Dat Bike’s suppliers are also domestic.

“There are also huge tax advantages for being local, as import tax for bikes is 45% and for bike parts ranging from 15% to 30%,” said Nguyen. “Trade within Southeast Asia is tariff-free though, which means that we have a competitive advantage to expand to the region, compare to foreign imported bikes.”

Dat Bike plans to expand by building its supply chain in Southeast Asia over the next two to three years, with the help of investors like Jungle Ventures.

In a statement, Jungle Ventures founding partner Amit Anand said, “The $25 billion two-wheeler industry in Southeast Asia in particular is ripe for reaping benefits of new developments in electric vehicles and automation. We believe that Dat Bike will lead this charge and create a new benchmark not just in the region but potentially globally for what the next generation of two-wheeler electric vehicles will look and perform like.”

Alex Mike

Decentralized finance startup MOUND, known for its yield farming aggregator Pancake Bunny, has raised $1.6 million in seed funding led by Binance Labs. Other participants included IDEO CoLab, SparkLabs Korea and Handshake co-founder Andrew Lee.

Built on Binance Smart Chain, a blockchain for developing high-performance DeFi apps, MOUND says Pancake Bunny now has more than 30,000 daily average users, and has accumulated more than $2.1 billion in total value locked (TVL) since its launch in December 2020.

The new funding will be used to expand Pancake Bunny and develop new products. MOUND recently launched Smart Vaults and plans to unveil Cross-Chain Collateralization in about a month, bringing the startup closer to its goal of covering a wide range of DeFi use cases, including farming, lending and swapping.

Smart Vaults are for farming single asset yields on leveraged lending products. It also automatically checks if the cost of leveraging may be more than anticipated returns and can actively lend assets for MOUND’s cross-chain farming.

Cross-Chain Collateralization is cross-chain yield farming that lets users keep original assets on their native blockchain instead of relying on a bridge token. The user’s original assets serve as collateral when the Bunny protocol borrows assets on the Binance Smart Chain for yield farming. This allows users to keep assets on native blockchains while giving them liquidity to generate returns on the Binance Smart Chain.

In a statement, Wei Zhou, Binance chief financial officer, and head of Binance Labs and M&A’s, said “Pancake Bunny’s growth and MOUND’s commitment to execution are impressive. Team MOUND’s expertise in live product design and service was a key factor in our decision to invest. We look forward to expanding the horizons of Defi together with MOUND.”

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