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March 24, 2019
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Nigerian fintech startup OneFi acquires payment company Amplify

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Lagos based online lending startup OneFi is buying Nigerian payment solutions company Amplify for an undisclosed amount.

OneFi will take over Amplify’s IP, team, and client network of over 1000 merchants to which Amplify provides payment processing services, OneFi CEO Chijioke Dozie told TechCrunch.

The move comes as fintech has become one of Africa’s most active investment sectors and startup acquisitions—which have been rare—are picking up across the continent.

The purchase of Amplify caps off a busy period for OneFi. Over the last seven months the Nigerian venture secured a $5 million lending facility from Lendable, announced a payment partnership with Visa, and became one of first (known) African startups to receive a global credit rating. OneFi is also dropping the name of its signature product, Paylater, and will simply go by OneFi (for now).

Collectively, these moves represent a pivot for OneFi away from operating primarily as a digital lender, toward becoming an online consumer finance platform.

“We’re not a bank but we’re offering more banking services…Customers are now coming to us not just for loans but for cheaper funds transfer, more convenient bill payment, and to know their credit scores,” said Dozie.

OneFi will add payment options for clients on social media apps including WhatsApp this quarter—something in which Amplify already holds a specialization and client base. Through its Visa partnership, OneFi will also offer clients virtual Visa wallets on mobile phones and start providing QR code payment options at supermarkets, on public transit, and across other POS points in Nigeria.

Founded in 2016 by Segun Adeyemi and Maxwell Obi, Amplify secured its first seed investment the same year from Pan-African incubator MEST Africa. The startup went on to scale as a payments gateway company for merchants and has partnered with banks, who offer its white label mTransfers social payment product.

Amplify has differentiated itself from Nigerian competitors Paystack and Flutterwave, by committing to payments on social media platforms, according to OneFi CEO Dozie. “We liked that and thought payments on social was something we wanted to offer to our customers,” he said.

With the acquisition, Amplify co-founder Maxwell Obi and the Amplify team will stay on under OneFi. Co-founder Segun Adeyemi won’t, however, and told TechCrunch he’s taking a break and will “likely start another company.”

OneFi’s purchase of Amplify adds to the tally of exits and acquisitions in African tech, which are less common than in other regional startup scenes. TechCrunch has covered several of recent, including Nigerian data-analytics company Terragon’s buy of Asian mobile ad firm Bizsense and Kenyan connectivity startup BRCK’s recent purchase of ISP Everylayer and its Nairobi subsidiary Surf.

These acquisition events, including OneFi’s purchase, bump up performance metrics around African tech startups. Though amounts aren’t undisclosed, the Amplify buy creates exits for MEST, Amplify’s founders, and its other investors. “I believe all the stakeholders, including MEST, are comfortable with the deal. Exits aren’t that commonplace in Africa, so this one feels like a standout moment for all involved,”

With the Amplify acquisition and pivot to broad-based online banking services in Nigeria, OneFi sets itself up to maneuver competitively across Africa’s massive fintech space—which has become infinitely more complex (and crowded) since the rise of Kenya’s M-Pesa mobile money product.

By a number of estimates, the continent’s 1.2 billion people include the largest share of the world’s unbanked and underbanked population. An improving smartphone and mobile-connectivity profile for Africa (see GSMA) turns that problem into an opportunity for mobile based financial solutions. Hundreds of startups are descending on this space, looking to offer scaleable solutions for the continent’s financial needs. By stats offered by Briter Bridges and a 2018 WeeTracker survey, fintech now receives the bulk of VC capital to African startups,

OneFi is looking to expand in Africa’s fintech markets and is considering Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, DRC, Ghana and Egypt and Europe for Diaspora markets, Dozie said.

The startup is currently fundraising and looks to close a round by the second half of 2019. OnfeFi’s transparency with performance and financials through its credit rating is supporting that, according to Dozie.

There’s been sparse official or audited financial information to review from African startups—with the exception of e-commerce unicorn Jumia, whose numbers were previewed when lead investor Rocket Internet went public and in Jumia’s recent S-1, IPO filing (covered here).

OneFi gained a BB Stable rating from Global Credit Rating Co. and showed positive operating income before taxes of $5.1 million in 2017, according to GCR’s report. Though the startup is still a private company, OneFi looks to issue a 2018 financial report in the second half of 2019, according to Dozie.

News Source = techcrunch.com

How business-to-business startups reduce inequality

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When considering the structural impact of technology companies on our economy and society, we tend to focus on questions of scale and monopoly.

It’s true that the FAANG companies and more recent winners (Airbnb, Uber) have surfed a combination of network effects, preferential access to capital and classic efficiencies of scale to generate tremendous value for their shareholders—to the detriment of new entrants who attempt to unseat them.

At their high water mark in mid-2018, FAANG alone made up 11% of the total market cap of the S&P 500 and 38% of the index’s year-to-date gain, representing a doubling in their influence in only five years. The question of regulating technology companies—to the point of instituting anti-trust actions—has even become a rare point of relative concord between Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

But is the narrative of tech companies in the 2010s only a story of economic consolidation and growing inequality? Many of the most successful B2B startups of the last decade are aligned by a theme that paints a different picture. By transforming the nature of the costs required to start a business, these startups are reducing the influence of capital and leveling the playing field for new entrants to share in the surplus generated by the secular shift to a tech-mediated economy.

Source: Getty Images/MIKIEKWOODS

A Path To Equal Opportunity: Turning Fixed Costs Into Variable Costs

What do AWSWeWorkStordGusto and RocketLawyer have in common? They provide cloud computing services, office space, warehouse storage, payroll management and access to legal templates, respectively—at first glance, not a particularly congruent set of services.

But they are alike in the economic purpose they serve for their customers. Each of these services takes a fixed cost—a bank of servers, a lease, a legal retainer—and transforms it into a variable cost. As a refresher, a fixed cost stays constant regardless of output, and variable costs scale with the output of a business.

When my father started his software consulting business in the early 1990s, I remember the giant boxes of AIX servers that arrived at our apartment, and tagging along to office tours in central New Jersey before he decided to run the company out of our spare bedroom. Back then, starting almost any kind of business was hard because of high fixed costs. Without AWS or WeWork, you shelled out up front for hardware and a lease.

Access to capital, whether in the form of a bank loan, savings, or friends and family was a prerequisite for entrepreneurship.

Today, startups make it possible to start and scale almost any kind of business while incurring few fixed costs. Want to found an ecommerce store? Start with a free Shopify account and dropship your inventory. Want to become a freelance designer? Put a shingle up on Fiverr and meet clients at a Breather you rent by the hour.

Whether software or hardware or labor, building a business is way easier when overhead is transformed into a string of flexible microservices that you only pay for as you grow.

Image courtesy of Getty Images

Lower Fixed Costs Means Capital Matters Less

Taken together, startups that turn fixed costs into variable costs make it less capital intensive to start a business. This decreases the influence of gatekeepers and aggregators of capital—an impact evident in the way entrepreneurs think about starting businesses today.

It’s no coincidence that the rise of B2B startups fitting this theme has coincided with the bootstrap movement, in which tech entrepreneurs with major ambitions demur from raising venture funding because—well, they don’t need the money anymore.

It has also coincided with a renaissance in freelance entrepreneurship: 56.7 million Americans freelanced in 2018. Beyond the economic benefits of working for yourself—the fastest growing segment of freelancers earns over $75,000 a year—freelancers can access the lifestyle and health benefits of owning their destiny, which aren’t directly captured but play a role in the economic picture. 51% of freelancers said no amount of money would lure them into a traditional job, and 64% reported feeling healthier and happier.

When capital plays a reduced role in new business formation, access to capital plays a smaller role in determining who will succeed. More companies are founded, and the economy becomes more likely to birth new Davids that will unseat the Goliaths. Economics 101: lower barriers to entry create markets that converge on perfect competition instead of oligarchic concentration.

Sourlce: Getty Images/ERHUI1979

Variable Costs Don’t Scale, But That’s OK

Variable costs have their downsides. A startup with a relatively higher proportion of fixed costs—the profile of the classic high-tech software business—can achieve higher profit margins as it scales. Compare Microsoft or Google, which pay high fixed costs in the form of salaries and servers but few costs in delivering their services and achieve operating margins of 25-30%, to Costco, which takes in more than $100B of annual revenue but earns an operating margin in the single digits.

That’s OK. Neither type of cost is “better” or “worse,” but having the option to decide how to structure costs through a company’s lifecycle can meaningfully impact an entrepreneur’s ability to execute a business idea.
Founders investigating startup ideas—and politicians debating the impact of technology—would do well to pay attention to how B2B companies have democratized access to entrepreneurship.

Equality of outcome arrives from equality of opportunity—and a future where millions of people can start businesses, differentiate, and succeed on the basis of their ability and value proposition, rather than their access to capital, sounds like a promising representation of the egalitarian ethos Silicon Valley wants to bring to pass.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Millions of bank loan and mortgage documents have leaked online

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A trove of more than 24 million financial and banking documents, representing tens of thousands of loans and mortgages from some of the biggest banks in the U.S., has been found online after a server security lapse.

The server, running an Elasticsearch database, had more than a decade’s worth of data, containing loan and mortgage agreements, repayment schedules and other highly sensitive financial and tax documents that reveal an intimate insight into a person’s financial life.

But it wasn’t protected with a password, allowing anyone to access and read the massive cache of documents.

It’s believed that the database was only exposed for two weeks — but long enough for independent security researcher Bob Diachenko to find the data. At first glance, it wasn’t immediately known who owned the data. After we inquired with several banks whose customers information was found on the server, the database was shut down on January 15.

With help from TechCrunch, the leak was traced back to Ascension, a data and analytics company for the financial industry, based in Fort Worth, Texas. The company provides data analysis and portfolio valuations. Among its services, the Ascension converts paper documents and handwritten notes into computer-readable files — known as OCR.

It’s that bank of converted documents that was exposed, Diachenko said in his own write-up.

Sandy Campbell, general counsel at Ascension’s parent company, Rocktop Partners, which owns more than 46,000 loans worth $4.4 billion, confirmed the security incident to TechCrunch.

“On January 15, this vendor learned of a server configuration error that may have led to exposure of some mortgage-related documents,” he said in a statement. “The vendor immediately shut down the server in question, and we are working with third-party forensics experts to investigate the situation. We are also in regular contact with law enforcement investigators and technology partners as this investigation proceeds.”

An unspecified portion of the loans were shared with the contractor for analysis, the statement added, but couldn’t immediately confirm how many loan documents were exposed.

In a phone call, Campbell confirmed that the company will inform all affected customers, and report the incident to state regulators under data breach notification laws.

From our review, it was clear that the documents pertain to loans and mortgages and other correspondence from several of the major financial and lending institutions dating as far back as 2008, if not longer, including CitiFinancial, a now-defunct lending finance arm of Citigroup, files from HSBC Life Insurance, Wells Fargo, CapitalOne and some U.S. federal departments, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Some of the companies have long been defunct, after selling their mortgage divisions and assets to other companies.

Though not all files contained the highly sensitive and personal data points, we found: names, addresses, birth dates, Social Security numbers and bank and checking account numbers, as well as details of loan agreements that include sensitive financial information, such as why the person is requesting the loan.

Some of the documents also note if a person has filed for bankruptcy and tax documents, including annual W-2 tax forms, which are targets for scammers to claim false refunds.

One record, picked at random and redacted, reveals a loan agreement for an individual, including personal information such as the loan amount, name, address and Social Security number (Image: TechCrunch)

But the database stored documents in a random order, and were not easily followable or presented in an easy to read or formatted way, making it difficult to follow from one document to another, said Diachenko.

We verified the authenticity of data by checking a portion of names in the database with public records.

“These documents contained highly sensitive data, such as Social Security numbers, names, phones, addresses, credit history and other details which are usually part of a mortgage or credit report,” Diachenko told TechCrunch. “This information would be a gold mine for cyber criminals who would have everything they need to steal identities, file false tax returns, get loans or credit cards.”

Although the documents originate from these financiers, one bank — Citi, which helped to secure the data — said it had no current relationship with the company.

“Citi recently became aware that a third party, with no connection to Citi, was storing certain mortgage origination and modification documents in an unsecure online environment,” said a Citi spokesperson. “These documents contained information about current or former Citi customers, as well as customers from other financial institutions. Citi notified law enforcement, initiated a thorough forensic investigation and worked quickly to ensure the information could no longer be publicly accessed.”

Citi confirmed that “third party is a vendor to a company that had purchased the loans and we have found no evidence that Citi’s systems were compromised.”

The bank added that it’s working to identify potentially affected customers.

Dozens of other companies are affected, including smaller regional banks and larger multinationals.

A Wells Fargo spokesperson said the data was obtained by Ascension from other entities that purchased Wells Fargo mortgages. When reached, neither HSBC nor CapitalOne had comment at the time of publication. A Housing and Urban Development spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. The department is currently affected by the ongoing government shutdown. If anything changes, we’ll update.

It’s the latest in a series of security lapses involving Elasticsearch databases.

A massive database leaking millions of real-time SMS text message data was found and secured last year, as well as a popular massage service and, most recently, AIESEC, the largest youth-run nonprofit for working opportunities.


Got a tip? You can send tips securely over Signal and WhatsApp to +1 646-755–8849. You can also send PGP email with the fingerprint: 4D0E 92F2 E36A EC51 DAAE 5D97 CB8C 15FA EB6C EEA5.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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

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