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Written by Ingrid Lunden

Wagestream closes $51M Series A to plug the payday gap without putting workers in debt

Getting your work wages on a monthly (not weekly nor biweekly) basis has become a more widespread trend as the price of running payrolls has gone up, and organizations’ cashflow has gone down. That 30-day shift may be a boost to employers, but not employees, who may need access to those wages more immediately and find it a challenge to stretch out their income month to month.

Now, a startup based out of London has raised a large round of funding for service that’s aiming to plug that gap. Wagestream — which works with employers to let employees draw down a percentage of their income in the month for a small, flat fee — today said that it has closed a Series A round of £40 million ($51 million).

The funding is coming in the form of equity and debt, with Balderton and Northzone leading on the equity side, which makes up £15 million of the raise, and savings bank Shawbrook investing £25 million on the debt side to finance employee draw-downs. Other investors in the round include QED, the Rowntree Foundation, the London Co-investment Fund (LCIF) and Village Global, a social venture firm backed by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, among others.

The company is not disclosing its valuation, but this brings the total raised to just under £45 million, and “the valuation is definitely higher now,” according to CEO and co-founder Peter Briffett.

The list of investors is proving to be a useful one for Wagestream as it grows. I asked if Bezos’ company, Amazon, was working with Wagestream. Briffett confirmed it is not a customer currently, “but we are talking to them.” It does, however, have a number of other customers already signed up, including pest removal service Rentokil PLC, Camden Town Brewery, the Slug & Lettuce pub chain and Carluccio’s chain of eateries, along with the NHS and Hackney Council — covering some 120,000 workers in all.

Amazon is an indicative example of one of the big opportunities for the company, which today is active in the U.K. but aiming to expand across Europe and the rest of the world.

While it is one of the biggest employers in the tech world, where it might typically pay out six-figure salaries in senior management, operational and technical roles, it’s also building out its business by being one of the biggest employers of hourly workers in its warehouses, wider logistics operations and similar areas. It’s employees like these who might be considered the first wave of employees that Wagestream is initially targeting, some of whom may be earning just enough or slightly more than enough to get by (at best), and face being victims of what Briffett referred to as the “payday poverty cycle.”

Getting paid monthly accounts for some 85% of all paychecks in the U.K. today, and the proportion is similar in Europe and also getting increasingly common in the U.S., Briffett — who has also worked at Microsoft, LivingSocial (when it was still backed by Amazon, and where he started the U.K. operation and ran it as the CEO for years) and YPlan (acquired by Time Out) — said in an interview. You might ask: Why don’t the workers just budget better? But it doesn’t always work out that way, especially the longer the gap is between paychecks, and if you, for example, have an unexpected expense to cover.

Because of that ubiquity, and the acuteness of the problem (if you’ve ever earned just about enough, or been a child in a family whose parents did, you may understand the predicament quite well), Wagestream is not the first time we’ve seen a financial services startup emerge to target that demographic.

Some other attempts have been scandalously disastrous, however: recall “Payday Loan” provider Wonga, backed by an illustrious set of investors but ultimately accused of, and hit hard by regulators and the public for, preying on people who were in need of funds with loans that were not transparent enough in their terms and led the borrowers into deep debt.

Wonga itself paid a big price for its practices, and the company is now bankrupt (and apparently still unable to replay creditors, as of the last report in March).

It was the disaster of Wonga — and an article in the WSJ about alternatives to payday loans — that Briffett said got him thinking about the possibilities and building Wagestream. (Ironic note: if you use PitchBook as I do, Wonga is listed among Wagestream’s backers, which Briffett assures me is an error.)

Wagestream positions itself as a “social impact” startup for targeting a very real problem that impacts financial inclusion for a proportion of the population, and it says this represents one of the highest rounds ever for a startup in the U.K. aimed at social impact.

“We fell in love with the strong product-market fit of Wagestream. We very rarely hear such universal positive feedback from all who have tried a product,” said Rob Moffat, a partner at Balderton, in a statement. “Companies used to take an active role in supporting the financial health of their users but this has slowly been eroded, to the extent where employees paid at the end of the month are effectively subsidising their employer for 29 days a month. Wagestream starts to restore the right balance.”

Wagestream operates by striking deals with employers to offer its services to its workers, who download an app and link up Wagestream with their salary and banking details. Businesses are able to set limits for what percentage of their wages employees can draw down each month, and how often the service can be used. Typically the limit is around 40% of a monthly wage, Briffett said.

Employees then can get the money instantly by paying a fee of £1.75 per withdrawal. “We are funding all of the withdrawals up front,” Briffett said. “We are the first company to marry workforce management and financial data.”

Down the road, the plan will be to expand to Europe as well as to the U.S., where there are already some other services that are trying to tackle the same problem, such as Instant Financial and DailyPay. There are also a number of areas the company could move into, such as working with companies that employ contract workers, and providing additional financial services to workers already using the app to draw down funds.

More expansion, Briffett said, will inevitably also mean more funding, particularly on the debt side.

For now, the emergence of Wagestream is an encouraging sign of how VCs are not just interested in tapping their coffers to bet on tech companies that they think will be hits. They also want to hunt for those whose returns may well be strong, but ultimately are made stronger by the longer-term effect they might have on the wider landscape of consumers, how they interface with fintech, and continue their own progress in the world.

Clutter has picked up Omni’s storage business; Omni to focus on rentals

On the heels of Clutter announcing a large growth round of $200 million earlier this year, the storage startup is cleaning up the competitive field. TechCrunch has learned and confirmed that Clutter has purchased the storage business of erstwhile rival Omni.

Omni will remain an independent company, which will now instead focus on rentals of personal items. That business was originally built around renting out items that you had stored with Omni itself. In recent months, however, the company had been transitioning that model to one where you used local businesses as the hub for handing over or picking up rented items. (It’s also been dabbling in cryptocurrency, offering to pay users in XRP instead of cash for renting out items.)

The companies had been working on the acquisition for the past two months, and Ari Mir, CEO and co-founder of Clutter, told TechCrunch it closed today.

While we were writing this story, Omni also posted a short note announcing the deal. “This deal allows us to double down on our rentals business and focus 100 percent of our efforts on empowering everyone to access the items they need when they need them,” it notes.

Mir said the two are not discussing the financial terms of the acquisition, which will give Omni customers 90 days under their current plans before being offered alternatives from Clutter, or a free delivery of their items elsewhere.

That free delivery might be to a company that rents out those possessions — such as bikes or furniture — that owners are not currently using but still want to keep. That’s because unlike Omni, Clutter will not be offering those customers the option to rent out items through Clutter itself. It’s an area that Mir said the company does want to move into one day, but it’s focussing on expanding the storage business first.

Clutter was last valued at around $600 million in its most recent deal, with backers including Softbank, Sequoia, Atomico and GV.  Omni has raised around $33 million.

The acquisition and spinning out of the service underscores a wider shaking out of startups that had emerged over the last several years to disrupt the incumbent storage market.

Tapping into a changing tide of how we live today — smaller dwellings, and more movement especially for younger working people — many startups saw an opportunity to provide more flexible solutions to modern consumers built on the on-demand model.

For Clutter, Omni and a number of competitors, their target users are consumers based in urban areas who live in smaller spaces with less storage options; have the disposable income not only to buy stuff but to pay to keep it somewhere else; and likely already use of other app-based on-demand services for food, transport, work-space and so on, making them familiar and ready to work with startups offering the same services to manage their material possessions.

But as we have noted before, the business of storage on demand is nothing short of, well, cluttered.

The wide array of rivals include incumbents like Public Storage, U-Haul and other older businesses that offer services to clear away your possessions and/or store them in lockers. Newer startups still active in storage include MakeSpace, Livible, and Closetbox.

But there is now also a growing list of companies that have tried to build storage businesses, and have thrown in the towel. They include Trove (which was acquired by Nextdoor and has transferred its storage business to “trusted partners”), Handy (which was acquired by ANGI Home Services), and now Omni.

One of the reasons it’s been difficult to build startups in this space is because storage is a little bit like logistics: it requires scale for the economic and operational models to be more viable, and so if the business isn’t growing fast enough, it can be too hard to sustain it.

If some businesses haven’t been scaling fast enough, it seems that Clutter is emerging as a consolidator that has: in addition to buying Omni’s storage business, it had also acquired Handy’s storage business. (Mir described the two acquisitions as “very similar” in how they were structured.) Clutter had been offered Trove’s business as well, he added, but declined to take it.

“Our business has the capital and operational intensity of an Amazon,” Mir said. “We’re consumer-facing, but we also are building a big backend, complete with trucks and warehouses. It requires lots of capital and being good at operations. Not a lot of teams have the appetite for it. It’s incredibly challenging.”

The parallel with logistics is not one to be ignored. Like logistics, storage involves three key elements: the building of smart platforms to optimise the routing of goods, pricing of services and other features; the use of warehouses as start, middle and endpoints in the movement of goods, spaces where items can be both kept and moved; and a network of reliable people to operate the delivery and distribution aspects of the business.

From what we understand, the second of those — the physical storage spaces — is an area that Clutter will be looking to develop more in the coming months, with its next funding round likely to be structured to help it start to take on more property of its own to build out its operations.

Additional reporting Josh Constine

MP Tom Watson wants UK competition authority to investigate Amazon’s Deliveroo stake

European restaurant delivery giant Deliveroo this morning announced that Amazon would be gobbling up a share in the company by leading a new $575 million round of funding in it. But it looks like the e-commerce giant may be facing a little indigestion ahead.

Tom Watson, MP and deputy leader of the Labour Party, today announced that he will be asking the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to investigate the investment, opening the door to either imposing stronger conditions on the deal or blocking it outright.

“It’s called surveillance capitalism,” he said today of Amazon’s approach to how it uses data from customers to build and sell products. “It’s a digital dystopia, and I shall be writing to the Competition and Markets Authority demanding they launch an investigation into this ‘investment.’ ”

We have contacted Watson directly to elaborate on which violation(s) he would cite in the referral and we will update as and when we hear back. Areas that the CMA might investigate could involve whether the deal would result in unfair competition, or a misuse of data.

Watson’s announcement came via a series of tweets, in which he laid out his concerns in more detail. His words are a concise take on the key to Amazon’s business model: its focus on Deliveroo is not just to invest in new services to expand its e-commerce and logistics business, but to leverage the data generated in one operation to grow other parts of its business, too.

“Deliveroo’s CEO Will Shu welcomes a land grab by Amazon because ‘it is such a customer-obsessed organisation,’ ” he said, citing an interview Shu gave to the BBC about the investment. “He’s right, Amazon is obsessed. Obsessed with tracking tools, micro-targeted ads, extracting billions through monetising our personal data.

“They don’t want to get their mighty claws on a food delivery system. They want Deliveroo’s tech and data. They don’t just want to know how you eat, what you eat, when you eat. They want to know how best to extract your cash throughout your waking and sleeping hours.”

The CMA — and regulators in general — have had a mixed record when it comes to putting their foot down on large deals. On one hand, in the past, European regulators approved major takeovers by Facebook of Instagram and WhatsApp — takeovers that now many are now questioning. On the other, it recently moved to block a $10 billion acquisition of Walmart’s ASDA by Sainsbury’s — effectively kicking the deal into touch.

The difference between these past cases and Amazon/Deliveroo is that the latter is an investment rather than an outright acquisition. However, there is an argument to be made that one can lead to the other, specifically in this case.

In September 2018, it was reported that Amazon had made at least two attempts to acquire Deliveroo, around the same time that Uber was also considering a bid for the company to bolster its Uber Eats business. (Deliveroo and Uber Eats have been in protracted competition to dominate higher-end, app-based food delivery services in key cities like London.)

At the time, Deliveroo was valued at around $2 billion; its valuation now is likely to be closer to $3 billion.

It’s worth pointing out too that another major acquisition that Amazon has made in Europe, of LoveFilm (to build eventually its Netflix competitor Amazon Prime Video), also started with an investment.

Amazon has had mixed success so far when it comes to food in London: it launched Amazon Restaurants in 2016 as one of the first markets for its move into food delivery, but closed it in 2018 (this is reportedly around the time that it first started to take an interest in Deliveroo).

Amazon has meanwhile been gradually expanding Amazon Fresh, Amazon Pantry and other grocery delivery in the U.K., but has yet to really utilise its relatively recent ownership of Whole Foods to expand that business beyond a few retail locations in London.

In the U.K., there have also been rumors that Amazon has considered snapping up real estate from failing brick-and-mortar superstores, although so far nothing has materialised.

In that context, a stake in Deliveroo could well be one development in what is a very long-term play for Amazon, a company known for pulling off tenacious, long-term plays. Whether the CMA chooses to investigate both the deal as well as that wider context will be an interesting one to chew on.