Category: Asia

Mobile payments firms in India are now scrambling to make money

Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and chief executive of India’s most valuable startup, Paytm, posed an existential question in a recent press conference.

“What do you think of the commercial model for digital mobile payments. How do we make money?” Sharma asked Nandan Nilekani, one of the key architects of the Universal Payments Infrastructure that created a digital payments revolution in the country.

It’s the multi-billion-dollar question that scores of local startups and international giants have been scrambling to answer as many of them aggressively shift their focus to serving merchants and building lending products and other financial services .

New Delhi’s abrupt move to invalidate much of the paper bills in the cash-dominated nation in late 2016 sent hundreds of millions of people to cash machines for months to follow.

For a handful of startups such as Paytm and MobiKwik, this cash crunch meant netting tens of millions of new users in a span of a few months.

India then moved to work with a coalition of banks to develop the payments infrastructure that, unlike Paytm and MobiKwik’s earlier system, did not act as an intermediary “mobile wallet” to serve as an intermediary between users and their banks, but facilitated direct transaction between two users’ bank accounts.

Silicon Valley companies quickly took notice. For years, Google and the likes have attempted to change the purchasing behavior of people in many Asian and African markets, where they have amassed hundreds of millions of users.

In Pakistan, for instance, most people still run errands to neighborhood stores when they want to top up credit to make phone calls and access the internet.

With China keeping its doors largely closed for foreign firms, India, where many American giants have already poured billions of dollars to find their next billion users, it was a no-brainer call.

“Unlike China, we have given equal opportunities to both small and large domestic and foreign companies,” said Dilip Asbe, chief executive of NPCI, the payments body behind UPI.

And thus began the race to participate in the grand Indian experiment. Investors have followed suit as well. Indian fintech startups raised $2.74 billion last year, compared to 3.66 billion that their counterparts in China secured, according to research firm CBInsights.

And that bet in a market with more than half a billion internet users has already started to pay off.

“If you look at UPI as a platform, we have never seen growth of this kind before,” Nikhil Kumar, who volunteered at a nonprofit organization to help develop the payments infrastructure, said in an interview.

In October, just three years after its inception, UPI had amassed 100 million users and processed over a billion transactions. It has sustained its growth since, clocking 1.25 billion transactions in March — despite one of the nation’s largest banks going through a meltdown last month.

“It all comes down to the problem it is solving. If you look at the western markets, digital payments have largely been focused on a person sending money to a merchant. UPI does that, but it also enables peer-to-peer payments and across a wide-range of apps. It’s interoperable,” said Kumar, who is now working at a startup called Setu to develop APIs to help small businesses easily accept digital payments.

Vice-president of Google’s Next Billion Users Caesar Sengupta speaks during the launch of the Google “Tez” mobile app for digital payments in New Delhi on September 18, 2017 (Photo: Getty Images via AFP PHOTO / SAJJAD HUSSAIN)

The Google Pay app has amassed over 67 million monthly active users. And the company has found the UPI pipeline so fascinating that it has recommended similar infrastructure to be built in the U.S.

In August, the Federal Reserve proposed to develop a new inter-bank 24×7 real-time gross settlement service that would support faster payments in the country. In November, Google recommended (PDF) that the U.S. Federal Reserve implement a real-time payments platform such as UPI.

“After just three years, the annual run rate of transactions flowing through UPI is about 19% of India’s Gross Domestic Product, including 800 million monthly transactions valued at approximately $19 billion,” wrote Mark Isakowitz, Google’s vice president of Government Affairs and Public Policy.

Paytm itself has amassed more than 150 million users who use it every year to make transactions. Overall, the platform has 300 million mobile wallet accounts and 55 million bank accounts, said Sharma.

Search for a business model

But despite on-boarding more than a hundred million users on their platform, payment firms are struggling to cut their losses — let alone turn a profit.

At an event in Bangalore late last year, Sajith Sivanandan, managing director and business head of Google Pay and Next Billion User Initiatives, said current local rules have forced Google Pay to operate in India without a clear business model.

Mobile payment firms never levied any fee to users as a strategy to expand their reach in the country. A recent directive from the government has now put an end to the cut they were receiving to facilitate UPI transactions between users and merchants.

Google’s Sivanandan urged the local payment bodies to “find ways for payment players to make money” to ensure every stakeholder had incentives to operate.

Paytm, which has raised more than $3 billion to date, reported a loss of $549 million in the financial year ending in March 2019.

The firm, backed by SoftBank and Alibaba, has expanded to several new businesses in recent years, including Paytm Mall, an e-commerce venture, social commerce, financial services arm Paytm Money and a movies and ticketing category.

This year, Paytm has expanded to serve merchants, launching new gadgets such as a stand that displays QR check-out codes that comes with a calculator and a battery pack, a portable speaker that provides voice confirmations of transactions and a point-of-sale machine with built-in scanner and printer.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Sharma said these devices are already garnering impressive demand from merchants. The company is offering these gadgets to them as part of a subscription service that helps it establish a steady flow of revenue.

The firm’s Money arm, which offers lending, insurance and investing services, has amassed over 3 million users. The head of Paytm Money, Pravin Jadhav, resigned from the company this week, a person familiar with the matter said. A Paytm spokeswoman declined to comment. (Indian news outlet Entrackr first reported the development.)

Flipkart’s PhonePe, another major player in India’s payments market, today serves more than 175 million users, and over 8 million merchants. Its app serves as a platform for other businesses to reach users, explained Rahul Chari, co-founder and CTO of the firm, in an interview with TechCrunch. The company is currently not taking a cut for the real estate on its app, he added.

But these startups’ expansion into new categories means that they now have to face off even more rivals, and spend more money to gain a foothold. In the social commerce category, for instance, Paytm is competing with Naspers-backed Meesho and a handful of new entrants; and heavily-backed OkCredit and KhataBook today lead the bookkeeping market.

BharatPe, which raised $75 million two months ago, is digitizing mom and pop stores and granting them working capital. And PineLabs, which has already become a unicorn, and MSwipe have flooded the market with their point-of-sale machines.

A vendor holds an Mswipe terminal, operated by M-Swipe Technologies Pvt Ltd., in an arranged photograph at a roadside stall in Bengaluru, India, on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“They have no choice. Payment is the gateway to businesses such as e-commerce and lending that you can monetize. In Paytm’s case, their earlier bet was Paytm Mall,” said Jayanth Kolla, founder and chief analyst at research firm Convergence Catalyst.

But Paytm Mall has struggled to compete with giants Amazon India and Walmart’s Flipkart. Last year, Mall pivoted to offline-to-online and online-to-offline models, wherein orders placed by customers are serviced from local stores. The company also secured about $160 million from eBay last year.

An executive who previously worked at Paytm Mall said the venture has struggled to grow because its goal-post has constantly shifted over the years. It has recently started to focus on selling fastags, a system that allows vehicle owners to swiftly pay toll fees. At least two more executives at the firm are on their way out, a person familiar with the matter said.

Kolla said the current dynamics of India’s mobile payments market, where more than 100 firms are chasing the same set of audience, is reminiscent of the telecom market in the country from more than a decade ago.

“When there were just four to five players in the telecom market, the prospect of them becoming profitable was much higher. They were scaling like crazy. They grew with the lowest ARPU in the world (at about $2) and were still profitable.

“But the moment that number grew to more than a dozen overnight, and the new players started offering more affordable plans to subscribers, that’s when profitability started to become elusive,” he said.

To top that off, the arrival of Reliance Jio, a telecom operator run by India’s richest man, in 2016 in the country with the cheapest tariff plans in the world, upended the market once again, forcing several players to leave the market, or declare bankruptcies, or consolidate.

India’s mobile payments market is now heading to a similar path, said Kolla.

If there were not enough players fighting for a slice of India’s mobile payments market that Credit Suisse estimate could reach $1 trillion by 2023, WhatsApp, the most popular app in the country with more that 400 million users, is set to roll out its mobile payments service in the country in a couple of months.

At the aforementioned press conference, Nilekani advised Sharma and other players to focus on financial services such as lending.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus outbreak that promoted New Delhi to order a three-week lockdown last month is likely going to impact the ability of millions of people to use such services.

“India has more than 100 million microfinance accounts, serviced in cash every week by gig-economy workers, who hawk vegetables on street corners or embroider saris sold in malls, among other things. Three out of four workers make a living by working casually for others or at their family firms and farms. Prolonged shutdowns will impair their ability to repay loans of 2.1 trillion rupees ($28.5 billion), putting the world’s largest microfinance industry at risk,” wrote Bloomberg columnist Andy Mukherjee.

China Roundup: Enterprise tech gets a lasting boost from coronavirus outbreak

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, a post from Sequoia Capital sounding the alarm of the coronavirus’s impact on businesses is reaching far corners of tech communities around the world, including China.

Many echo Sequoia’s observation that the companies that are the “most adaptable” are the likeliest to survive. Others cling to the hope of “[turning] a challenging situation into an opportunity to set yourself up for enduring success.”

Two weeks ago I wrote about how the private sector and the government in China are working together to contain the epidemic, bringing a temporary boost to the technology industry. This week I asked a number of investors and founders which of these changes will stand to last, and why.

B2B on the rise

The business-to-business (B2B) space was rarely a hot topic in China until online consumer businesses became relatively saturated in recent times. And now, the COVID-19 epidemic has unexpectedly breathed life into the once-boring field, which stretches from virtual meetings, online education, digital healthcare, cybersecurity, telecommunications, logistics to smart cities, analysis from investment firm Yunqi Partners shows.

For one, there is an obvious opportunity for remote collaboration tools as people work from home. Downloads of indigenous work apps like Dingtalk, WeChat Work, TikTok’s sister Lark as well as America’s Zoom jumped exponentially amid the health crisis. While some argue that the boom is overblown and will dissipate as soon as businesses are back to normal, others suggest that the shift in behavior will endure.

Like other work collaboration services, Zoom soared in China amid the coronavirus outbreak, jumping from No. 180 in late January to No. 28 as of late February in overall app installs. Data: App Annie 

“People are reluctant to change once they form a new habit,” suggests Joe Chan, partner at Hong Kong-based Mindworks Ventures. The virus outbreak, he believes, has educated the Chinese masses to work remotely.

“Meeting in person and through Zoom both have their own merits, depending on the social norm. Some people are used to thinking that relationships need to be established through face-to-face encounters, but those who don’t hold that view will have fewer meetings. [The epidemic] presents a chance for a paradigm shift.”

But changes are slow

Growth in enterprise businesses might be less visible than what China witnessed over the SARS epidemic that fueled internet consumer verticals such as ecommerce. That’s because software-as-a-services (SaaS), cloud computing, health tech, logistics and other enterprise-facing services are intangible for most consumers.

“Compared to changes in consumer behavior, the adoption of new technologies by enterprises happen at a slower pace, so the impact of coronavirus on new-generation innovations [B2B] won’t come as rapidly and thoroughly as what happened during SARS,” contended Jake Xie, vice president of investment at China Growth Capital.

Xie further suggested that the opportunities presented by the outbreak are reserved for companies that have been steadily investing in the field, in part because enterprise services have a longer life cycle and require more capital-intensive infrastructure. “Opportunists don’t stand a chance,” he concluded.

As for changing consumer behavior, such as the uptick in grocery delivery usage by seniors trapped indoors, the impact might be short-lived. “The only benefit that the epidemic brings to these apps is getting more people to try their services. But how many of them will stay? The argument that people will keep using these apps over concerns of getting sick in offline markets is unsubstantiated. The strength of a business lies in its ability to solve user problems in the long term, for example, providing affordability and convenience,” suggested Derek Shen, chairman of Danke Apartment, the Chinese co-living startup slated to list on NYSE.

Summoned by Beijing

The adjacent sector of enterprise services — at-scale technologies tailored to energizing government functions — has also seen traction over the course of the epidemic. Private firms in China have teamed up with regional authorities to better track people’s movements, ramp up facial recognition capacities aimed at a mask-wearing public, develop contact-free consumer experience, among other measures.

Tech firms touting services to the government are no stranger to criticisms concerning the lack of transparency in how user data is used. But the appeal to private firms is huge, not only because state contracts tend to provide a steady stream of long-term revenue, but also that certain public-facing projects can be billed as a fulfillment of corporate social responsibilities. Following the virus outbreak, Chinese tech companies of all sizes hastened to offer contributions, with efforts ranging from making monetary donations to building tools that keep the public informed.

On the flip side, the government also needs private help in emergency management. As prominent Chinese historian Luo Xin poignantly pointed out in podcast SurplusValue’s recent episode [1:00:00], some of the most efficient and effective responses to the public health crisis came not from the government but the private sector, whether it is online retailer JD.com or logistics firm SF Express delivering relief supplies to the epicenter of the outbreak.

That said, Luo argued there are signs that some local authorities’ tendency to centralize control is getting in the way of private efforts. For example, some government offices have stumbled in their attempts to develop crisis management systems from scratch, overlooking a pool of readily available and proven infrastructure powered by the country’s tech giants.

India’s richest man is ready to take on Amazon and Walmart’s Flipkart

As Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart spend billions to make a dent in India’s retail market and reel from recent regulatory hurdles, the two companies have stumbled upon a new challenge: Mukesh Ambani, Asia’s richest man.

Reliance Retail and Reliance Jio, two subsidiaries of Ambani’s Reliance Industries, said they have soft launched JioMart, their e-commerce venture that works closely with neighbourhood stores, in parts of the state of Maharashtra — Navi Mumbai, Kalyan and Thane.

The e-commerce venture, which is being marketed as “Desh Ki Nayi Dukaan” (Hindi for new store of the country), currently offers a catalog of 50,000 grocery items and promises “free and express delivery.”

In an email to Reliance Jio users, the two aforementioned subsidiaries that are working together on the e-commerce venture, said they plan to expand the service to many parts of India in coming months. The joint venture has also urged Jio subscribers to sign up to JioMart to access introductory offers. A Reliance spokesperson declined to share more.

The soft launch this week comes months after Ambani, who runs Reliance Industries — India’s largest industrial house — said that he wants to service tens of millions of retailers and store owners across the country.

If there is anyone in India who is positioned to compete with heavily-backed Amazon and Walmart, it’s him. Reliance Retail, which was founded in 2006, is the largest retailer in the country by revenue. It serves more than 3.5 million customers each week through its nearly 10,000 physical stores in more than 6,500 Indian cities and towns.

Reliance Jio is the second largest telecom operator in India with more than 360 million subscribers. The 4G-only carrier, which launched commercial operations in the second half of 2016, disrupted the incumbent telecom operation in the country by offering bulk of data and voice calls at little to no charge for an extended period of time.

In a speech in January, Ambani, an ally of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, invoked Mahatama Gandhi and said, like Gandhi, who led a movement against political colonization of India, “we have to collectively launch a new movement against data colonization. For India to succeed in this data-driven revolution, we will have to migrate the control and ownership of Indian data back to India – in other words, Indian wealth back to every Indian.”

Modi, whose government at the time had just announced regulatory challenges that would impact Amazon and Flipkart, was among the attendees.

E-commerce still accounts for just a fraction of total retail sales in India. India’s retail market is estimated to grow to $188 billion in next four years, up from about $79 billion last year, according to research firm Technopak Advisors.

In an interview earlier this year, Amit Agarwal, manager of Amazon India, said, “one thing to keep in mind is that e-commerce is a very, very small portion of total retail consumption in India, probably less than 3%.”

To make their businesses more appealing to Indians, both Amazon and Flipkart have expanded their offerings and entered new businesses. Both of the platforms have started to sell grocery items in recent quarters and are working on food retail, too. Amazon has bought stakes in a number of retailers in India, including in India’s second largest retail chain Future Retail’s Future Coupons, Indian supermarket chain More, and department store chain Shopper’s Stop.

Flipkart has invested in a number of logistic startups including ShadowFax and Ninjacart. Amazon India was also in talks with Ninjacart to acquire some stake in the Bangalore-based startup, people familiar with the matter said.

In recent quarters, Reliance Jio executives have aggressively reached out shop owners in many parts of India to showcase their point-of-sale machines and incentivize them to join JioMart, many merchants who have been approached said.

Chinese apps are losing their hold on India to local developers

Apps from Chinese developers have been gaining popularity on Indian app stores for sometime. Last year, as many as 44 of the top 100 Android apps in India were developed by Chinese firms.

But things have changed this year as local developers put on a fight. According to app analytics and marketing firm AppsFlyer, Indian apps as a whole have recaptured their original standing.

41% of top 200 apps in Indian editions of Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store in Q2 and Q3 this year were developed by Indian developers and local firms, up from 38% last year, the report said. Data from App Annie, another research firm, corroborates the claim.

“This uptick happened chiefly at the expense of Chinese apps, which fell from their lead position to 38% from 43% in 2018. Altogether, Chinese and Indian apps make up almost four-fifths (79%) of the list,” the report said.

The shift comes as scores of Indian firms have launched payments, gaming, news, and entertainment apps in the last year and a half, said AppsFlyer, which analyzed 6.5 billion installs in the second and third quarters of this year.

But Chinese developers are not giving up and continue to maintain an “impressive” fight in each category, the report said.

India — which is home to more than 450 million smartphone users and maintains relatively lax laws to support an open market — has naturally emerged as an attractive battleground for developers worldwide.

Many Chinese firms including Xiaomi and ByteDance count India as one of their largest markets. TikTok app has amassed over 200 million users in India, for instance. Xiaomi, which leads the Indian smartphone market, is quickly building a portfolio of services for users in India. It launched a lending app in the country earlier this month.

Gaining traction among first time internet users, most of whom have lower financial capacity, can prove challenging. Those developing travel apps had to spend about 170 Indian rupees ($2.4) for each install, for instance. Food and drink app makers spent 138 Indian rupees ($1.9) per install during the aforementioned period, while games cost 13.5 Indian rupees.

Despite the marketing spends, retention rate for these apps was 23.4% on day 1, a figure that plummeted to 2.6% by the end of the month. (This is still an improvement over retention rates of 22.8% on day 1, and 2.3% on day 30 last year.)

China Roundup: GitHub’s China ambitions and WeWork rival’s big hopes

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, we are looking at how WeWork’s largest rival in China — UCommune — is pulling ahead with its initial public offering and GitHub’s potential big move in China.

GitHub turns to China

The world’s largest source code repository host GitHub is mulling to open a Chinese subsidiary, the company’s CEO told the Financial Times recently. The plan comes at a time when the technological rift between China and the U.S. is deepening. The U.S.’s trade sanctions on Huawei, which includes limiting the company’s access to certain Android services, has stirred concerns of further “decoupling” between the two countries. Since then Huawei has stepped up efforts to cut its reliance on American suppliers and develop its own core chips and software operating system.

American tech companies are feeling a similar chill from the trade war. Opening a China office could potentially help GitHub hedge against trade war bans and alleviate the company’s risks in its second-largest market. The demand for a China backup plan appears to have grown after GitHub restricted accounts of users in Cuba, Iran and a few other countries to comply with U.S. sanctions, a decision that sparked an outcry from open-source developer communities around the world and worried Chinese users that the same could befall them.

On the other hand, developers in China and overseas worry that maintaining a China-based operation might subject GitHub’s local projects to Beijing censorship as the country requires foreign companies operating in China to store users’ data locally. Though GitHub has previously been blocked in China seemingly for sharing anti-censorship tools, the restriction was usually temporary. As of now, the site remains largely accessible in China, according to Greatfire.org, a website that monitors China’s online censorship. But the concerns are justified. LinkedIn and Bing, sharing the same parent company — Microsoft — with GitHub, have been roundly criticized for practicing censorship in China.

Big hopes and losses

China’s shared space provider UCommune is moving ahead of its rival WeWork as it filed with the U.S. securities exchange for an IPO this week. Like its American counterpart, UCommune — which rebranded from UrWork after a name dispute with WeWork — hasn’t yet found its way to profitability. The Beijing-based company posted a net loss of 573 million yuan ($80.13 million) for the first three quarters ended September 30, 2019, up from 271 million yuan a year earlier, shows its F1 filing.

UCommune founder Mao Daqing, a real estate veteran, has previously forecasted that China’s co-working industry would be valued close to 100 billion yuan ($14 billion) by 2030. The reality is a bit more dismal. WeWork is reportedly coping with high vacancy rates across major Chinese cities, although sources told TechCrunch that spaces could be easily filled up with one or two large corporate contracts per location.

Perhaps more notably, half of UCommune’s revenue is derived from so-called “marketing and branding services,” which include content design as well as online and offline advertising services it sells to customers. The marketing segment, curiously, is attributed to one single subsidiary, a digital marketing services provider it acquired in late 2018. UCommune warns in its prospectus that “the historical financial results of our marketing and branding services may not serve as an adequate basis for evaluating the future financial results of this segment” because revenue from the unit relies overwhelmingly on a small number of major enterprise clients.

Also worth your attention…

Despite Huawei’s push to build its own alternative operating system — HarmonyOS — the Chinese giant is sticking with Android for the foreseeable future. At a company event this week in Shenzhen, its home city, consumer software executive Wang Chenglu announced (in Chinese) that all of Huawei’s handsets, tablets and laptops will continue to carry Android-based OS in 2020. Meanwhile, Huawei’s other products, including a broad range of Internet of Things that make up a smaller chunk of its consumer revenue, will ship with HarmonyOS.

Kuaishou, the largest rival to TikTok in China has reached 100 million daily active users, the company announced (in Chinese) this week. Tencent-backed Kuaishou was one of China’s first short-video apps to have attracted a meaningful following, but it was quickly leapfrogged by a latecomer, ByteDance’s Douyin, which is TikTok’s brand in China.

Though similarly focused on bite-sized videos, the two apps differ fundamentally in the way they distribute content. Trending videos on Douyin tend to come from pedigreed influencers and professional creators; users are fed what Douyin’s complex algorithms determine as “quality” content. Kuaishou, in comparison, works to cultivate a sense of community as its users get exposed to a broader range of long-tail content — often from creators with insignificant followings.

That places Douyin closer to a form of “media” and Kuaishou closer to a “social network,” suggested (in Chinese) Liu Jianing, managing director of China’s top boutique investment bank China Renaissance, at a recent industry conference. For that reason, the two apps also monetize differently — while Douyin generates revenue mainly from ads, Kuaishou harnesses its social graphs to enable social commerce wherein shoppers leverage other users’ recommendations to make purchases.

Sleek raises $5M to help companies incorporate and operate in Singapore and Hong Kong

Sleek, a startup that is making it easier for other startups and companies to incorporate and operate in Singapore and Hong Kong, said today it has extended its seed financing round to raise $5 million.

The extended seed round for the two-year-old startup was led by private investors Pierre Lorinet and Fabio Blom, and MI8, an Asia-focused European backed private investment company.

Sleek also counts a number of high profile individuals including Martin Crawford, former Group CEO of corporate services giant Vistra, Olivier Gerhardt, founder of Wavecell, Eric Barbier, founder of TransferTo, and Olivier Legrand, MD Asia at Linkedin among its investors.

Sleek, founded by French entrepreneurs Julien Labruyere and Adrien Barthel, today helps more than 2,000 startups and companies in Singapore and Hong Kong, an additional market it extended to in mid-2019. Some of its clients include Yours Cosmetics (funded by Sequoia), Aspire Financials (which raised $30 million recently), Ematic Solutions, Devialet, and oil and gas giant Total.

As we wrote about them in June this year, Sleek not only helps startups and companies incorporate themselves in Singapore (and now, Hong Kong), but also takes care of their accounting, taxes, regulatory compliance and other administrative work.

Sleek founders Julien Labruyere (right) and Adrien Barthel (left)

Singapore and Hong Kong have emerged as epicenters for startups and tech worldwide. “Hong Kong is a historical Asian financial hub, with six times more operating companies than in Singapore and an amazing business ecosystem,” said Barthel, adding that despite the current situation in Hong Kong, the business is growing in the market.

Both Singapore and Hong Kong today offer a range of benefits including government-backed startup programs to attract businesses, but setting up shops there still require a lot of paperwork.

The traditional way of dealing with accounting and incorporation is a cumbersome task, and the last thing founders want to deal with, Barthel explained to TechCrunch in an interview. Plus, there’s no transparency in what the actual cost of doing these tasks would be, he said.

Sleek offers a subscription business, where it charges a fixed amount — about $600 — to its customers each year. Starting second year, it waives some of its fee, said Barthel. “We also offer a simple dashboard for our clients to quickly check the progress we have made on any front,” he added.

To make the deal even better, Sleek offers vouchers with subscription to AWS, Stripe, Google Cloud — that they are likely going to use in their businesses anyway — worth thousands of dollars. The startup also connects its partner entrepreneurs with financial institutions to help them access working capital.

Barthel said before signing up a client, Sleek does its own due diligence. “Singapore, for instance, has stringent on KYC (know your customer) processes. Among other things, we use a number of APIs that are tied with all the major global databases to ensure that our potential clients are not doing notorious business,” he said.

Sleek, which today employs 85 people, will use the fresh capital to expand its tech team, build new features for clients, and increase its operational capacity.

In a first, Amazon launches a battery-powered portable Echo speaker in India

After launching nearly a dozen Echo speaker models in India in two years, Amazon said on Wednesday it is adding one more to the mix that addresses one of the most requested features from customers in the nation: Portability.

The e-commerce giant today unveiled the Echo Input Portable Smart Speaker Edition, a new variant in the lineup that includes a built-in battery. The 4,800mAh enclosed battery will offer up to 10 hours of continuous music playing or up to 11 hours of stand-by life, the company said.

“Portability has been one of the most requested features in India,” said Miriam Daniel, VP of Alexa Devices. “You want to be able to carry Alexa with you from room to room within your homes. So we have designed something just for you.”

The battery-powered Echo model, designed exclusively for India, is priced at 5,999 Indian rupees ($84). Users can currently purchase it at an introductory price of 4,999 Indian rupees ($70) and the device will begin shipping on December 18.

Other than the built-in battery pack, the new speaker model offers an identical set of features — access to some 30,000 Alexa skills, compatibility with a range of home devices, of course, support for Alexa voice assistant — as other Echo variants. (The new model additionally carries an array of four LEDs that light up when a user taps the power button to show battery level.)

More to follow…