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January 18, 2019
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Byju’s buys Osmo for $120M to add blended learning to its $4B digital education business

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Weeks after it raised a massive $540 million funding round, Indian education unicorn Byju’s is on the M&A path. The company announced today it has snapped up U.S-based Osmo, a startup that develops apps for kids that use offline input, in a deal worth $120 million.

Osmo has raised over $30 million from investors that include Mattel, Sesame Workshop, Upfront Ventures, K9 Ventures and Accel. They were offered a cash option but elected for an all-stock payout, Osmo CEO Pramod Sharma told TechCrunch in an interview. That, he added, is a “validation of the level of confidence” that they have in Osmo combining its resources with Byju’s, which is valued at nearly $4 billion from that recent funding round that featured Naspers, Tencent and others.

Founded by former Googlers Sharma and Jerome Scholler, the Osmo service was launched at TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield in 2013, when it was initially called Tangible Play. The company combines the benefits of digital and offline learning using a dozen or so apps that tie into customized hardware, that’s a base designed for iPads or Amazon Kindle Fire tables alongside a red reflector and game pieces — as pictured above.

The result is ‘blended learning’ apps that integrate offline activities, varying from drawing to math, spelling and even making pizza, to help children aged between 5 and 12 learn. Currently, Sharma said, it is used in around 20,000 schools and it has reached around a million families, 90 percent of which are in the U.S.

That puts it squarely into the bracket of companies that Byju’s founder Byju Raveendran told TechCrunch that his company was seeking to snap up using its newly-acquired war chest.

In an interview announcing the fund last month, Raveendran said he wanted “product-based acquisitions that will be value-adds on top of our core product.”

Byju Raveendran founded Byju’s as an offline learning center business in 2008, today it is worth nearly $4 billion thanks to a thriving digital education business with over a million paying customers. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

In that respect, Osmo is an ideal complement to Byju’s existing business, which covers educational courses for grades 4-12 using a combination of videos, games and other materials and counts. It currently counts 30 million registered students to date and 1.3 million paying users with a specific focus on India. But, with its new funding in the bank, it is preparing a new service that will offer a number of courses in English for children aged 3-8 based across the world.

Raveendran and Sharma said that the immediate plan post-acquisition will see a huge increase in content for the Osmo platform, while the price of the hardware — which currently ranges from $99-$189 — may also be reduced to help grow the audience beyond its current base.

“For us to grow, we need to invest in content,” Sharma said. “We have a lot of ideas [and] have proven a set of interactions, [but] a lot can be expanded with more content and levels. We’ve proven this is a compelling platform for learning, and we are nowhere close to scaling it… our goal is to get it to every child.”

Osmo offers three different packages to customers wishing to buy its equipment for children

Echoing those comments, Raveendran said Osmo can “reach its maximum potential” with more content while he stressed that there is plenty of cross-pollination potential between the two companies.

“We’re asking: ‘How can we bring some of the offline learning kids do, is there a way to capture that back onto the app and personalize the learning experiences further?’” he said. “There’s overlap between Osmo users and the products we are building [so] how we can use that for multiple education use scenarios, even possibility for higher grades?”

Ten-year-old Byju’s started out in offline learning before moving into digital courses in 2015. Its push online has seen it do a number of deals and Osmo represents its fourth acquisition. But beyond being its most expensive, Raveendran hailed the acquisition as his company’s “most important” deal to date.

“We have video as a format, games as a format, and we think of Cosmo like a format… we could have thousands of supported apps,” he told TechCrunch by phone. “Education is not purely an online experience, especially for younger kids [so] the potential is huge if there’s a clear online-to-offline application.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

Scooter startup Bird tried to silence a journalist. It did not go well.

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Cory Doctorow doesn’t like censorship. He especially doesn’t like his own work being censored.

Anyone who knows Doctorow knows his popular tech and culture blog Boing Boing, and anyone who reads Boing Boing knows Doctorow and his cohort of bloggers. The part-blogger, part special advisor at the online rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, has written for years on topics of technology, hacking, security research, online digital rights, and censorship and its intersection with free speech and expression.

Yet, this week it looked like his own free speech and expression could have been under threat.

Doctorow revealed in a blog post on Friday that scooter startup Bird sent him a legal threat, accusing him of copyright infringement and that his blog post encourages “illegal conduct.”

In its letter to Doctorow, Bird demanded that he “immediately take[s] down this offensive blog.”

Doctorow declined, published the legal threat, and fired back with a rebuttal letter from the EFF accusing the scooter startup of making “baseless legal threats” in an attempt to “suppress coverage that it dislikes.”

The whole debacle started after Doctorow wrote about about how Bird’s many abandoned scooters can be easily converted into a “personal scooter” by swapping out its innards with a plug-and-play converter kit. Citing an initial write-up by Hackaday, these scooters can have “all recovery and payment components permanently disabled” using the converter kit, available for purchase from China on eBay for about $30.

In fact, Doctorow’s blog post was only two paragraphs long and, though didn’t link to the eBay listing directly, did cite the hacker who wrote about it in the first place — bringing interesting things to the masses in bitesize form in in true Boing Boing fashion.

Bird didn’t like this much, and senior counsel Linda Kwak sent the letter — which the EFF published today — claiming that Doctorow’s blog post was “promoting the sale/use of an illegal product that is solely designed to circumvent the copyright protections of Bird’s proprietary technology, as described in greater detail below, as well as promoting illegal activity in general by encouraging the vandalism and misappropriation of Bird property.” The letter also falsely stated that Doctorow’s blog post “provides links to a website where such Infringing Product may be purchased,” given that the post at no point links to the purchasable eBay converter kit.

EFF senior attorney Kit Walsh fired back. “Our client has no obligation to, and will not, comply with your request to remove the article,” she wrote. “Bird may not be pleased that the technology exists to modify the scooters that it deploys, but it should not make baseless legal threats to silence reporting on that technology.”

The three-page rebuttal says Bird used incorrectly cited legal statutes to substantiate its demands for Boing Boing to pull down the blog post. The letter added that unplugging and discarding a motherboard containing unwanted code within the scooter isn’t an act of circumventing as it doesn’t bypass or modify Bird’s code — which copyright law says is illegal.

As Doctorow himself put it in his blog post Friday: “If motherboard swaps were circumvention, then selling someone a screwdriver could be an offense punishable by a five year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine.”

In an email to TechCrunch, Doctorow said that legal threats “are no fun.”

AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 10: Journalist Cory Doctorow speaks onstage at “Snowden 2.0: A Field Report from the NSA Archives” during the 2014 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Austin Convention Center on March 10, 2014 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Travis P Ball/Getty Images for SXSW)

“We’re a small, shoestring operation, and even though this particular threat is one that we have very deep expertise on, it’s still chilling when a company with millions in the bank sends a threat — even a bogus one like this — to you,” he said.

The EFF’s response also said that Doctorow’s freedom of speech “does not in fact impinge on any of Bird’s rights,” adding that Bird should not send takedown notices to journalists using “meritless legal claims,” the letter said.

“So, in a sense, it doesn’t matter whether Bird is right or wrong when it claims that it’s illegal to convert a Bird scooter to a personal scooter,” said Walsh in a separate blog post. “Either way, Boing Boing was free to report on it,” she added.

What’s bizarre is why Bird targeted Doctorow and, apparently nobody else — so far.

TechCrunch reached out to several people who wrote about and were involved with blog posts and write-ups about the Bird converter kit kit. Of those who responded, all said that they had not received a legal demand from Bird.

We asked Bird why it sent the letter, and if this was a one-off letter or if Bird had sent similar legal demands to others. When reached, a Bird spokesperson did not comment on the record.

All too often, companies send legal threats and demands to try to silence work or findings that they find critical, often using misinterpreted, incorrect or vague legal statutes to get things pulled off from the internet. Some companies have been more successful than others, despite an increase in awareness and bug bounties, and a general willingness to fix security issues before they inevitably become public.

Now Bird becomes the latest in a long list of companies that have threatened reporters or security researchers, alongside companies like drone maker DJI, which in 2017 threatened a security researcher trying to report a bug in good faith, and spam operator River City, which sued a security researcher who found the spammer’s exposed servers and a reporter who wrote about it. Most recently, password manager maker Keeper sued a security reporter claiming allegedly defamatory remarks over a security flaw in one of its products. The case was eventually dropped but not before over 50 experts, advocates, and journalist (including this reporter) signed onto a letter calling for companies to stop using legal threats to stifle — and silence security researcher.

That effort resulted in several companies — notably LinkedIn and Tesla — to double down on their protection of security researchers by changing their vulnerability disclosure rules to promise that the companies will not seek to prosecute hackers acting in good-faith.

But some companies have bucked that trend and have taken a more hostile, aggressive — and regressive — approach to security researchers and reporters.

“Bird Scooters and other dockless transport are hugely controversial right now, thanks in large part to a ‘move-fast, break-things’ approach to regulation, and it’s not surprising that they would want to control the debate,” said Doctorow.

“But to my mind, this kind of bullying speaks volumes about the overall character of the company,” he said.

News Source = techcrunch.com

WeWork rebranding won’t work

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The company formerly known as WeWork has rebranded as the We Company — although a better name for its network of on-demand office spaces for the newly incorporated and nominally employed; co-living spaces for the same Easyjet-set; and educational and coding services could be “House of Cards”.

News of the rebranding (first reported via Fast Company) comes on the heels of reports that the company would no longer be receiving a planned $16 billion golden parachute to escape a soon-to-be-sinking real estate market investment from longtime backer Masayoshi Son’s Softbank and his Softbank Vision Fund.

WeWork, which lost $1.2 billion over the first three quarters of 2018 according to an FT report, is rebranding to shift attention from its real estate play to a broader blend of living and educational services that now comprise the three pillars of its business (to be clear, the largest pillar is its real estate properties).

The knock against the company has always been that it was a real estate investment masquerading as a tech company (a case which the FT made magisterially last year).

In the blog post, WeWork chief executive Adam Neumann laid out the company’s new strategy which divides the company into three different business lines, WeWork (real estate), WeLive (its co-living spaces) and WeGrow (for education).

For the We Company to succeed a few things need to happen. Revenue needs to rebalance to the WeLive and WeGrow businesses quickly and it needs to grow its services even more aggressively. And the result of each needs to be actual profitability.

There aren’t a lot of really hard metrics to gauge the company’s current performance on. But the good people at Bloomberg did uncover actual financial data on the company’s debt, which is underperforming compared to industry benchmarks.

Neumann said that the original vision of the company was an all encompassing network of offerings that would help customers, bank, shop, live, and play. That’s a mighty goal worthy of a Vision Fund, but its vision may turn out to be a fever dream if the indicators are right and the worldwide slide into recession finally happens.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Stock markets suffer their worst Christmas Eve trading day

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Twas the last trading day before Christmas, and on the trading floor
Most stocks were falling, and then falling some more;
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin all the banks had called,
In hopes that full coffers were still in their vaults;

The analysts were shaken by news of the call;
which initially caused the stock market to fall;
Then President Trump took to Twitter, to blame the Federal Reserve,
Which was something the Fed chairman just didn’t deserve

So banks and traders rushed to their phones with a clatter,
Causing stock market value further to shatter.
Markets don’t like decisions made in a flash,
And criticizing sound economic policy can exacerbate a crash.

Mnuchin made his call with banks from a tropical isle,
and analysts criticized his decision’s lack of guile,
They were more concerned with policy stupidity,
Since there’s already enough administrative volatility.
Like threatening to oust the chairman of the Federal Reserve,
Someone whose position it would be better to preserve.

So now the Dow has fallen some 653 points
And doctors may advise traders to light up their joints
Because U.S. indices are on track for their worst December
Since the 1930s, which almost no one alive remembers.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Ten pieces of friendly VC advice for when someone wants to buy your company

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I’ve been fortunate to have been part of half a dozen exits this year, and have seen the process work smoothly, and other times, like a roller coaster with only the most tenuous connection to the track. Here are ten bits of advice I’ve distilled from these experiences in the event someone makes you an offer for your startup.

1. Understand the motivations of your acquirer.

The first thing you need to understand is why the acquiring company wants your startup. Do you have a strategic product or technology, a unique team, or a sizable revenue run rate? Strategic acquirers, like Google and Facebook, likely want you for your tech, team, or sometimes even your user traction. Financial acquirers, like PE firms, care a great deal more about revenue and growth. The motivations of the buyers will likely be the single-biggest influencer of the multiple offered.

It’s also essential to talk price early on. It can be somewhat awkward for less experienced founders to propose a rich valuation for their company but it’s a critical step towards assessing the seriousness of the discussion. Otherwise, it’s far too easy for an acquirer to put your company through a distracting process for what amounts to an underwhelming offer, or worse, a ploy to learn more about your strategy and product roadmap.

2. Don’t “Test the waters.” Pass, or fully commit.

Going through an M&A process is the single most distracting thing a founder can do to his or her company. If executed poorly, the process can terminally damage the company. I’d strongly advise founders to consider these three points before making a decision:

Is now the right time? The decision to sell can be a tough choice for first-time founders. Often the opportunity to sell the company comes just as the process of running it becomes enjoyable. Serial entrepreneurship is a low-percentage game, and this may be the most influential platform a founder will ever have. But the reflex to sell is understandable. Most founders have never had a chance to add millions to their bank accounts overnight. Moreover, there is a team to consider; usually all with mortgages to pay, college funds to shore up, and the myriad of other expenses and their needs should factor into the decision.

Is it actually your choice to make? Most investors look at M&A as a sign your company could be even bigger and as an opportunity to put more capital to work. However, when VCs have lost confidence and see a fair offer come in, or they hear a larger competitor is looking at entering your space, they may push you to sell. Of course, the best position to be in is one where you can control your destiny and use profitability as the ultimate BATNA (“best alternative to a negotiated agreement”).

How long do you have to stay? In the case of competing offers, you may have limited ability to negotiate price, but other deal terms could be negotiable. One of the most important is the amount of time you have to stay at the company, and how much of the sale price is held in escrow, or dependent on earn-outs.

3. Manage your team.

As soon as you attract interest from an acquirer, start socializing the idea that most M&A deals fall apart — because they do. This is important for two reasons.

First, your executive team will likely start counting their potential gains, and they just may let KPIs key to running the business slip. If the deal fails to close, the senior team will be dejected, demotivated, and you may start to hear some mutinous noises. This attitude quickly percolates through the team and can be deadly for the culture. What was supposed to be your moment of triumph can quickly turn into a catastrophe for team morale.

This is typically the toughest part of the M&A process. You need the exec team to execute to close a deal, but you’re running into some of the deepest recesses of human nature too. Recognize the fact that managing internal expectations is as important as managing the external process.

4. Raise enough money to stay flush for a year.

Assuming you’re selling your company from a position of strength, make sure you have enough capital so that you don’t lose leverage due to a balance sheet lacking cash. I’ve seen too many companies start M&A discussions and take their foot off the gas in the business, only to see the metrics drop and runway shorten, allowing the acquirer to play hardball. In an ideal scenario, you want at least 9 months of cash in the bank.

5. Hire a banker.

If you get serious inbound interest, or if you’re at the point where you want to sell your company, hire a banker. Your VCs should be able to introduce you to a few strong firms. Acquisition negotiations are high stakes, and while bankers are expensive, they can help avoid costly rookie mistakes. They can also classically and plausibly play the bad cop to your good cop which can also contribute positively to your post-merger relations.

My only caveat is that bankers have a playbook and tend not to get creative enough. You can still be additive in helping fill the funnel of potential acquirers, especially if you’ve had communication with unlikely acquirers in the past.

6. Find a second bidder… and a third… and a fourth.

The hardest bit of advice is also the most valuable. Get a second bidder ASAP. It’s Negotiation 101, but without a credible threat of a competitive bid, it is all too easy to be dragged along.

Hopefully, you’ve been talking with other companies in your space as you’ve been building your startup. Now is the time to call your point of contact and warn them that a deal is going down, and if they want in, they need to move quickly.

Until you’re in a position of formal exclusivity, keep talking with potential acquirers. Don’t be afraid to add new suitors late in the game. You’d be amazed at how much info spreads through M&A back channels and you may not even be aware of rivalries that can be extremely useful to your pursuit.

Even when you’re far down the road with an acquirer, if they know you have a fallback plan in mind it can provide valuable leverage as you negotiate key terms. The valuation may be set, but the amount paid upfront vs. earnouts, the lock-up period for employees and a multitude of other details can be negotiated more favorably if you have a real alternative. Of course, nothing provides a better alternative than your simply having a growing and profitable business!

7. Start building your data room.

Founders can raise shockingly large sums of money with pitch decks and spreadsheets, but when it comes time to sell your startup for a large sum, the buyer is going to want to get access to documentation, sometimes down to engineering meeting minutes. Financial records, forward-looking models, audit records, and any other spreadsheet will be scrutinized. Large acquirers will even want to look at information like HR policies, pay scales, and other human resources minutiae. As negotiations progress, you’ll be expected to share almost every detail with the buyer, so start pulling this information together sooner rather than later.

One CEO said that during the peak of diligence, there were more people from the acquirer in his office than employees. Remember to treat your CFO and General Counsel well – chances are high that they get very little rest during this process.

8. Keep your board close, your tiny investors far away.

Founders are in a tough situation in that they’re starving for advice, but they should avoid the temptation to share info about negotiations with those who don’t have alignment. For instance, a small shareholder on the cap table is more likely to blab to the press than a board member whose incentives are the same as yours. We’ve seen deals scuttled because word leaked and the acquirer got cold feet.

Loose lips sink startups.

9. Use leaks when they inevitably happen.

Leaks are annoying and preventable, but if they do happen, try using them as leverage. If the press reports that you’ve been acquired, and you haven’t been, and also haven’t entered a period of exclusivity, try to ensure that other potential bidders take notice. If you’ve been having trouble drumming up interest with potential bidders, a report from Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, or TechCrunch can spark interest in the way a simple email won’t.

10. Expect sudden radio silence.

There’s a disconnect between how founders perceive a $500M acquisition and how a giant like Google does. For the founder, this is a life changing moment, the fruition of a decade of work, a testament to their team’s efforts. For the corp dev person at Google, it’s Tuesday.

This reality means that your deal may get dropped as all hands rush to get a higher-priority, multi-billion dollar transaction over the finish line. It can be terrifying for founders to have what were productive talks go radio silent, but it happens more often than you think. A good banker should be able to back channel and read the tea leaves better than you can. It’s their day job not yours.

No amount of advice can prepare you for the M&A process, but remember that this could be one of the highest quality problems you’re likely to experience as a founder. Focus on execution, but feel good about achieving a milestone many entrepreneurs will never experience!

News Source = techcrunch.com

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