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Early-stage venture firm The Fund launches in Australia

A group photo of The Fund Australia’s team (left to right): Elicia McDonald, Adrian Petersen, Georgia Vidler, Ed Taylor and Todd Deacon

The Fund Australia’s team (l to r): Elicia McDonald, Adrian Petersen, Georgia Vidler, Ed Taylor and Todd Deacon

The Fund, the early-stage investment firm focused on pre-seed and seed startups, is going Down Under for its latest expansion. The Fund was founded in New York in 2018, before launching in Los Angeles, London, the Rockies and the Midwest, too.

Co-founder Jenny Fielding, who is also managing director at Techstars New York, said The Fund decides on new areas for expansion based on demand from the local startup ecosystem, and earlier this year, it heard from a group of founders and operators who wanted to launch it in Australia, too.

In addition to participating in first check rounds, The Fund also builds communities of founders and other leaders from successful startups, who not only provide mentorship, but also capital as limited partners. The Fund now has a network of about 400 founders and has made around 120 investments across its funds.

In each of its regions, The Fund is led by an investment committee of four people. In Australia, they are: Techstars managing director Todd Deacon; venture firm AirTree principal Elicia McDonald; AfterWorks Ventures co-founder Adrian Petersen; and former Canva head of product Georgia Vidler. There will be 50 people in The Fund Australia’s limited partner base, including founders of startups like Culture Amp’s Rod Hamilton, Linktree’s Alex Zaccaria, Adore Beauty’s Kate Morris, and leaders from Canva and Safety Culture, too. The Fund Australia’s LPs will help source promising startups from their networks, and refer them to the investment committee for review.

The Fund is targeting $3.5 million USD and will invest in about 40 startups, writing check sizes of $50,000 to $100,000 USD over 24 months. Limited partners and other members of its community around the world will provide guidance as portfolio companies grow.

Deacon told TechCrunch that The Fund Australia’s focus on very early-stage startups is important because of the growing pre-seed/seed funding gap. He points to a report by StartupAus, an advocacy group for Australian startups, that angel and seed investment in Australia has fallen over the past few years, both in terms of number of deals and aggregate value.

The Fund’s hypothesis is that many early-stage funds, in Australia and other parts of the world, shift their focus to later stages as they raise larger funds, Deacon added. This happened in New York City, too, and was one of the contributing drivers for the creation of The Fund in the first place.

“There’s been this gap in early-stage funding. There’s those two points of building a really strong community—helping founders and then the funding gap, which we can help to solve to a certain degree. We’re bringing in checks in the early stage with a lot of power in providing founders access to that network,” he said.

Writing early checks lets The Fund see deal flow before other venture firms and limited partners, and small check sizes gives it an advantage with startups.

“We don’t take a huge proportion of their raise, yet we come with really high quality capital,” said Deacon. “We’ve got that investor network. For why some of our [LPs] are interested, it’s to generate a return, but they also want to give back and make Australia and New Zealand companies prosper.”

Being able to tap into The Fund’s international network is helpful for startups in Australia, where many companies eye international expansion from the start.

Australian unicorns like Atlassian and Canva are also helping strengthen Australia’s startup ecosystem, said Vidler. “It feels like an inflection point for me in the startup ecosystem, where now there’s all these original founders and a community of senior operators who are keen to give back and create and bolster the ecosystem here.”

The Fund Australia is sector agnostic and wants to create a diverse portfolio. The Fund has focused on gender parity since the start. Each region’s investment committee is comprised of two men and two women, about half of its LPs are women and over 40% of its total capital has gone to female founders. Vidler says this was a major draw for her.

“The pull for me, and I think for a big part of the network in Australia, and a lot of women in tech in Australia, is that they’re going to be super interested in investing in the next generation of female founders as well,” she said.

FamPay, a fintech aimed at teens in India, raises $38 million

How big is the market in India for a neobank aimed at teenagers? Scores of high-profile investors are backing a startup to find out.

Bangalore-based FamPay said on Wednesday it has raised $38 million in its Series A round led by Elevation Capital. General Catalyst, Rocketship VC, Greenoaks Capital and existing investors Sequoia Capital India, Y Combinator, Global Founders Capital and Venture Highway also participated in the new round, which brings FamPay’s to-date raise to $42.7 million.

TechCrunch reported early this month that FamPay was in talks with Elevation Capital to raise a new round.

Founded by Sambhav Jain and Kush Taneja (pictured above) — both of whom graduated from Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee in 2019 — FamPay enables teenagers to make online and offline payments.

The thesis behind the startup, said Jain in an interview with TechCrunch, is to provide financial literacy to teenagers, who additionally have limited options to open a bank account in India at a young age. Through gamification, the startup said it’s making lessons about money fun for youngsters.

Unlike in the U.S., where it’s common for teenagers to get jobs at restaurants and other places and understand how to handle money at a young age, a similar tradition doesn’t exist in India.

After gathering the consent from parents, FamPay provides teenagers with an app to make online purchases, as well as plastic cards — the only numberless card of its kind in the country — for offline transactions. Parents credit money to their children’s FamPay accounts and get to keep track of high-ticket spendings.

In other markets, including the U.S., a number of startups including Greenlight, Step and Till Financial are chasing to serve the teenagers, but in India, there currently is no startup looking to solve the financial access problem for teenagers, said Mridul Arora, a partner at Elevation Capital, in an interview with TechCrunch.

It could prove to be a good issue to solve — India has the largest adolescent population in the world.

“If you’re able to serve them at a young age, over a course of time, you stand to become their go-to product for a lot of things,” Arora said. “FamPay is serving a population that is very attractive and at the same time underserved.”

The current offerings of FamPay are just the beginning, said Jain. Eventually the startup wishes to provide a range of services and serve as a neobank for youngsters to retain them with the platform forever, he said, though he didn’t wish to share currently what those services might be.

Image Credits: FamPay

Teens represent the “most tech-savvy generation, as they haven’t seen a world without the internet,” he said. “They adapt to technology faster than any other target audience and their first exposure with the internet comes from the likes of Instagram and Netflix. This leads to higher expectations from the products that they prefer to use. We are unique in approaching banking from a whole new lens with our recipe of community and gamification to match the Gen Z vibe.”

“I don’t look at FamPay just as a payments service. If the team is able to execute this, FamPay can become a very powerful gateway product to teenagers in India and their financial life. It can become a neobank, and it also has the opportunity to do something around social, community and commerce,” said Arora.

During their college life, Jain and Taneja collaborated and built an app and worked at a number of startups, including social network ShareChat, logistics firm Rivigo and video streaming service Hotstar. Jain said their work with startups in the early days paved the idea to explore a future in this ecosystem.

Prior to arriving at FamPay, Jain said the duo had thought about several more ideas for a startup. The early days of FamPay were uniquely challenging to the founders, who had to convince their parents about their decision to do a startup rather than joining firms or startups as had most of their peers from college. Until being selected by Y Combinator, Jain said he didn’t even fully understand a cap table and dilutions.

He credited entrepreneurs such as Kunal Shah (founder of CRED) and Amrish Rau (CEO of Pine Labs) for being generous with their time and guidance. They also wrote some of the earliest checks to the startup.

The startup, which has amassed over 2 million registered users, plans to deploy the fresh capital to expand its user base and product offerings, and hire engineers. It is also looking for people to join its leadership team, said Jain.

Edtech investors are flocking to SaaS guidance counselors

ApplyBoard, a startup that helps international students find opportunities to study abroad, announced today that it has nearly doubled its valuation in a little over a year. The Ontario-based company is now worth around $3.2 billion after raising a $300 million Series D round led by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board.

ApplyBoard makes money from revenue-sharing agreements with colleges and universities. If a student attends a college after using their services, ApplyBoard receives a cut of the tuition. Meanwhile, the service, which helps students search and apply to schools, is free to use.

Co-founder and CEO Martin Basiri did not share specifics on revenue, but he confirmed that his company is growing its sales at a 400% year-over-year rate in 2021. For context, sales in 2019 hit $300 million, meaning that ApplyBoard is making at least $1.2 billion in sales this year.

These figures violate the prevailing edtech narrative from last year: Higher ed is dead! Students don’t want to attend college anymore. Bring back the gap year, but make it permanent!

Instead, this company is proving that the university tech stack is more lucrative than many assumed, especially if you look beyond content offerings and into back-end marketing support.

My take: Startups that help students navigate institutional bureaucracy so they can get more value out of their educational experience may become a growing focus for investors as consumer demand for virtual personalized learning increases.

‘Students want a seamless and pain-free application process’

ApplyBoard’s recent fundraising efforts shed a light on its strategy to become, effectively, a tech-savvy guidance counselor for the approximately 200,000 students that it has served to date.

The company raised a $55 million extension round in September to bring on a partner, Education Testing Services (ETS) Strategy Capital, the venture arm of the world’s largest nonprofit education testing and assessment organization. ETS helps administer the TOEFL English-language proficiency test and the GRE graduate admissions test.

The synergies there led ApplyBoard to launch ApplyProof, a service that helps admissions and immigrant officers verify documents that international students need to apply to colleges around the world. Today’s financing event similarly brings in a strategic investor, Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

“The demand remains high post-pandemic and we continue to see a strong, pent-up demand from students wishing to study abroad,” Basiri said. “Students want a seamless and pain-free application process and be able to have all the information they need to make an informed decision.”