Bosun Tijani talks strategy as CEO of Africa’s new largest tech hub

With CcHub‘s acquisition of iHub in September, Nigerian Bosun Tijani is at the helm of (arguably) the largest tech network in Africa.

He is now CEO of both organizations, including their robust membership rosters, startup incubation programs, global partnerships and VC activities from Nigeria to Kenya .

One could conclude Tijani has become one of the most powerful figures in African tech with the CcHub/iHub merger. But that would be a little shortsighted.

The techie from Lagos still faces plenty of challenges and unknowns in integrating two innovation hubs that lie 3,818 flight kilometers apart. Several sources speaking on background over the last year have indicated iHub was experiencing financial difficulties.

Tijani offered TechCrunch some initial details last month on how the acquisition will fall together.

But more recently he shared greater detail on his strategy for operating the multi-country innovation network. A big test for Tijani will be aligning the organizations on a path to sustainability. The buzzword is usually code for generating consistent operating income beyond expenses.

The growth of innovation spaces, accelerators and incubators in Africa — which tally 618 per GSMA stats — is often lauded as an achievement for the continent’s tech ecosystem.

But debate on how these focal points for startup formation, training and IT activity fund themselves is ever-present.

Grant income has served as a dominant revenue source for Africa’s tech hubs — including iHub in its early days — though many have worked to diversify.

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That includes CcHub, according to Tijani, who plans to continue the trend across the expanded CcHub/iHub organization.

“When people talk about sustainability, we’ve been in business for nine years,” he notes of CcHub Nigeria.

“We de-emphasized grant funding six years ago; most of our revenue is actually earned revenue.”

On income sources Tijani looks to foster across both organizations, he named consulting services (for corporates, governments and development agencies), events services and generating greater return on investment.

iHub has been active with startup seed investments and CcHub has a portfolio of companies through its Growth Capital Fund.

“Our size will become a major part of us being able to invest in startups, and the longer we stay invested the more we will start to see significant returns and exits,” said Tijani.

CcHub CEO Bosun Tijani

The CcHub/iHub nexus will also use its size to leverage more partnerships. Tijani and team have already mastered gaining collaborations with big African and global tech names, such as MainOne and Facebook.

Tijani will look to connect iHub to CcHub’s Google-sponsored Pitch Drive — which has done African startup tours of Asia and Europe — and potentially take the show to the U.S.

“We’re talking about it,” Tijani said, of a U.S. pitch trip. And this could lead to a permanent presence in San Francisco for the new CcHub/iHub entity.

“Beyond just a tour, we want to build strong presence in the Bay Area,” Tijani said, but didn’t offer more specifics on what that could mean.

So on the list of things to emerge from the CcHub-iHub acquisition, African tech planting a big flag in San Francisco is a future possibility.

A more immediate result of the union between the innovation spaces will be Bosun Tijani becoming a regular sight on flights between Lagos and Nairobi.

Deadspin writers quit after being ordered to stick to sports

Writers Laura Wagner, Kelsey McKinney, Tom Ley, Lauren Theisen, Patrick Redford, Albert Burneko and Chris Thompson all tweeted today that they have resigned from Deadspin, the sports-focused site owned by G/O Media.

A quick refresher: G/O Media was formerly known as Gizmodo Media Group, and before that as Gawker Media. It took on its current name and current leadership earlier this year when Univision sold the unit to private equity firm Great Hill Partners, which appointed former Forbes.com CEO Jim Spanfeller as its new chief executive.

Since then, the relationship between G/O Media leadership and the editorial staff has been rocky, as you would have learned by reading Deadspin itself, particularly an in-depth story by Wagner in August about how employees were unhappy with “a lack of communication regarding company goals, seeming disregard for promoting diversity within the top ranks of the company, and by repeated and egregious interference with editorial procedures.”

A few weeks later, Deadspin’s editor in chief Megan Greenwell resigned, saying that G/O Media’s new editorial director Paul Maidment was directing the staff to stick to sports coverage — a decision that she argued wasn’t dictated by traffic, as “posts on The Concourse, Deadspin’s vertical dedicated to politics and culture and other topics that are not sports, outperform posts on the main site by slightly more than two to one.”

Apparently Maidment repeated that edict in a memo earlier this week, which was leaked to The Daily Beast, and in which he said, “Deadspin will write only about sports and that which is relevant to sports in some way.”

The Deadspin homepage was subsequently filled with non-sports content, and editor Barry Petchesky tweeted that he had been “fired from Deadspin for not sticking to sports.”

At the same time, Deadspin also posted a story criticizing auto-playing ads on the site, declaring, “We, the writers, editors, and video producers of Deadspin, are as upset with the current state of our site’s user experience as you are.” The post is no longer live, but the criticism reportedly prompted advertiser Farmers Insurance to pull the campaign.

This all appears to have prompted a mass exodus from Deadspin today. The Gizmodo Media Group union also issued this statement:

Today, a number of our colleagues at Deadspin resigned from their positions. From the outset, CEO Jim Spanfeller has worked to undermine a successful site by curtailing its most well-read coverage because it makes him personally uncomfortable. This is not what journalism looks like and it is not what editorial independence looks like.

“Stick to sports” is and always has been a thinly veiled euphemism for “don’t speak truth to power.” In addition to being bad business, Spanfeller’s actions are morally reprehensible. The GMG Union stands with our current and former Deadspin colleagues and condemns Jim Spanfeller in the strongest possible terms.

We’ve reached out to G/O Media for comment and will update if we hear back.

Update: G/O Media provided the following statement to The New York Times:

They resigned and we’re sorry that they couldn’t work within this incredibly broad coverage mandate. We’re excited about Deadspin’s future and we’ll have some important updates in the coming days.

Latin America Roundup: Uber acquires Cornershop, SoftBank invests in Buser and Olist

Brazil continued to churn out unicorns this month, with Curitiba-based Ebanx becoming the first startup from the southern part of the country to top a $1 billion valuation. U.S.-based FTV Capital provided the investment but did not disclose the amount invested nor the exact valuation of Ebanx after the investment.

Ebanx is an end-to-end payment processor that helps international companies receive payments in the Latin American market, similar to Stripe. Their clients include Airbnb, AliExpress, Pipedrive, Spotify, Uber and Wish, and more than 50 million Latin Americans have conducted transactions with more than 1,000 companies through the Ebanx platform. This investment comes on the heels of exciting partnerships with Uber Pay, Shopify, Spotify and Visa to expand cross-border payment processing across the region.

Ebanx has operations in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, and will expand their local payment solution, Ebanx Pay, into Colombia in 2020. The company has grown its user base by offering a full-service product that includes market research, 24/7 customer service and anti-fraud technology.

The Ebanx investment is part of a growing interest in Latin American payments startups. Brazil’s PagSeguro and StoneCo had successful IPOs last year, while Mexico’s Conekta and Ecuador’s Kushki have raised large rounds to try to unite the region under a single processor as Latin America rapidly adopts e-commerce.

Uber acquires Cornershop, takes off where Walmart left off

The acquisition of the Chilean-Mexican grocery delivery startup Cornershop has been an emotional roller coaster for Latin American entrepreneurs and investors throughout 2019. First Walmart announced a $225 million deal that would be one of the bigger exits of the region, then the acquisition was blocked by Mexican antitrust institution COFECE. This announcement dealt a blow to the ecosystem as entrepreneurs and VCs had eagerly awaited this boost in liquidity in the local market.

Last-mile delivery and logistics became a very competitive space in Latin America in 2018.

Then in mid-October 2019, Uber announced it would take a 51% stake in Cornershop for a reported $450 million, quadrupling the startup’s value in the four months since the COFECE decision. This deal will consist of cash, investment in Cornershop’s growth and stock in Uber, which IPO’d earlier this year.

However, this deal must also be approved by the Chilean and Mexican antitrust boards, which are expected to release their decisions within the next two weeks. In the meantime, Cornershop will continue its expansion into the Colombian market after it added Peru and Canada in 2019.

Last-mile delivery and logistics became a very competitive space in Latin America in 2018, and many of the players are sitting on enormous pools of capital. Colombia’s Rappi raised $1 billion from SoftBank in early 2019, breaking records for startup investment for the region. Brazil’s iFood raised $500 million from Naspers at the end of 2018. However, delivery continues to be a cash-intensive business, with many of these companies burning through capital quickly to gain market share. Cornershop was an exception and had raised less than $50 million before the acquisition.

Brazil’s Buser, Olist, raise funding from SoftBank

Despite the WeWork crash, SoftBank has continued investing consistently in Brazilian startups. In early October 2019, the Japanese investor led an undisclosed Series B round for Brazilian collaborative bus chartering startup Buser. Buser’s team will invest more than $73 million in growth over the next 12 months to create new alliances for their network of operating partners.

Buser helps coordinate groups of people to charter buses at convenient times and lower prices, disrupting the bureaucratic, anti-competitive and inefficient bus system. The company has grown 1,500% over the past nine months and serves more than 3,000 people per day. While Buser has been popular with locals, traditional bus drivers are calling for regulation to slow the company’s meteoric growth. Buser plans to add more than 100 direct jobs in 200 cities over the next 12 months, and SoftBank’s most recent investment will help power this growth.

Brazil’s e-commerce marketplace integrator Olist also received investment from SoftBank for its Series C, coming in around $46 million. Redpoint eVentures and Valor Capital also participated in the round. 

This investment signals the increased interest by traditional retailers in startups that are slowly chipping away at their market share across the region.

Olist connects small businesses to larger product marketplaces to help entrepreneurs sell their products to a larger customer base. They will reportedly use this investment to investigate the development of financial products and look for collaboration with SoftBank’s other companies, like Rappi and Loggi. Based in Curitiba, Olist was founded in 2015 to help small merchants gain market share across the country through a SaaS licensing model to small brick and mortar businesses.

Today, Olist has more than 7,000 customers and uses a drop-shipping model to send products directly from stores to clients around the country, allowing them to grow with a capital-light model. They will use the investment to add up to 100 new employees.

Carrefour Brazil acquires 49% of Ewally

Grocery chain Carrefour acquired a large stake in Brazil-based Ewally after it completed Village Capital’s first regional acceleration program.

Ewally improves financial inclusion in Brazil through a mobile wallet app that allows unbanked clients to pay bills and make purchases online through the blockchain. Carrefour will reportedly use the acquisition to accelerate digital transformation and improve online payment mechanisms throughout Brazil.

Carrefour did not disclose the amount invested and the deal is still subject to approval by Brazilian financial regulation authorities. However, this investment signals the increased interest by traditional retailers in startups that are slowly chipping away at their market share across the region.

News and Notes: Early-stage rounds are getting bigger

Startups in Brazil, Colombia and Argentina raised several rounds this month, ranging from $1.5 million to $13 million. Brazil’s Xerpa, Colombia’s Sempli, Brazil’s Gorilla and Argentina’s Bitso and Worcket were among those that raised capital from local and international investors in October 2019.

Brazilian human resource management platform Xerpa raised $13 million from Vostok Emerging Finance to continue to help companies like MercadoLibre, iFood and QuintoAndar provide benefits for their employees. Previous investors include Nubank’s David Velez, Kaszek Ventures and QED Investors.

Sempli, an online lending platform for small businesses in Colombia, raised an $8 million Series A from new investors Oikocredit and Incofin CVSO, as well as previous investors BID LAB, XTPI Fund, Generación Exponencial, and Impulsum Ventures. To date, Sempli has raised more than $24 million in equity funding. The founders will use this round to grow their portfolio and improve their risk assessment technology to provide more small business loans in Colombia.

Brazil’s Quicko, an alternative mobility startup that uses big data, raised $10 million in October from Brazilian transport company CCR. Quicko’s technology integrates all mobility options — from bicycles to Uber and 99 — to help people get where they need to go as quickly and inexpensively as possible.

Also in Brazil, startup Gorilla Invest raised $8.4 million from Ribbit Capital, Monashees and Iporanga. Gorilla aggregates financial assets so that investors can review all their commitments in one place, and currently manages more than $1.2 billion for 40,000 clients.

Mexican cryptocurrency exchange Bitso raised an undisclosed round from Argentine startup Ripple to expand into the Southern Cone, especially Argentina and Brazil. Other investors in the round included Pantera Capital, Digital Currency Group, Jump Capital and Coinbase.

Looking ahead to November, with unsettled politics in several countries across the region, tech startups are growing despite governmental changes. Some of these changes will likely have a positive effect on the regional ecosystem as people push for more sustainable and equal economic growth.

What to watch next? Last year, Q4 was marked by a wave of large investments as funds and startups look to end the year strong. IFood raised its record-breaking $500 million round in December 2018. We may well see a similar uptick this year as mega-funds like SoftBank have been consistently investing multi-million dollar rounds since June. There is no sign international investment in Latin America will slow through the end of the year, so we can likely look forward to several more growth-stage rounds before the year is out.

Forerunner Ventures’ newest bet is Curated, a marketplace that matches pros with people buying high-ticket items

If you’ve ever tried buying a bike online, or ski equipment, or any number of expensive goods where it would be useful to know a lot more than you do, you might check out Curated, a two-year-old San Francisco-based startup that wants to help busy shoppers who know generally what they want but don’t necessarily have time to visit a specialty store to learn more.

It isn’t the first startup to help with shopping recommendations. Among its predecessors is Hunch, a company that delivered customized recommendations to users based on signals around the web (and sold to eBay in 2011). Another variation on the same theme can be traced back to the dot com era company Keen.com, a live answer community where people could get answers to their questions over the phone.

Still, Curated makes enough sense in today’s market that Forerunner Ventures, which has established a name for itself as the preeminent investor in e-commerce companies, just led its $22 million Series A round. It was the only venture firm in the round by design, says cofounder and CEO Eddie Vivas, who says the funding was filled out by the same friends and family who’d participated in Curated’s $5.5 million seed round.

As part of the deal, Forerunner founder Kirsten Green has also joined the board.

It’s easy to appreciate the company’s appeal. Curated works by matching bewildered shoppers with people who are passionate and knowledgeable and “expert” in their fields. Right now, those experts are mostly athletes or coaches, as the platform is starting out with a handful of verticals, including golf, cycling, and a few winter sports. Longer term, the idea is to launch new sections on the site every six to eight weeks, including fly fishing, kiteboarding, camping and hiking.

How the economics work: Curated strikes deals with manufacturers — say makers of snowboard equipment or mountain bikes — that sell Curated their goods at wholesale prices. Curated can then sell them at retail prices to its customers. (Curated fulfills the order itself.)

Part of that markup is used to pay its experts, who tend to be people who have jobs in related fields but could use more income and who love sharing what they know about a topic. To ensure that these experts know as much as they claim, they are vetted by other experts on the platform, answering a battery of questions as part of that process.

Vivas stresses that experts are in no way incentivized to recommend anything in particular to a customer, but he says customers can tip the experts if they wish. (Curated suggests tips of 5%, 7.5%, or 10%, and Vivas says they are sometimes given much more than that by shoppers who are thankful for their time and effort, especially when their interactions end up leading them to products that cost less than they might have paid otherwise.)

The end goal is for customers to complete transactions on the platform that they wouldn’t otherwise feel comfortable completing at a site where they aren’t actively educated.

The platform is seizing on a number of trends that make it a smart idea for this day and age. For one thing, it uses artificial intelligence to connect shoppers with the right advisors. Though everyone tosses around AI as a competitive advantage, Curated seemingly has a genuine competitive advantage on this front, owing to the background of Vivas, who sold to LinkedIn an earlier company that used AI to automate the recruiting process.

At the time, in 2014, it was LinkedIn’s biggest acquisition ever. And Vivas stayed at LinkedIn for another 3.5 years as the head of product within its talent solutions business, which is where LinkedIn derives most of its revenue. (In fact, it’s where he met some of the 32 people who now work at Curated.)

Curated is also putting to work far-flung knowledge workers who, like a lot of Americans, increasingly work for themselves or in part-time roles that they’re looking to supplement with other part-time roles.

But perhaps most meaningfully, Curated is a kind of antidote to Amazon, where shoppers can turn when they need something fast but that’s incredibly limited when it comes to providing the kind of information needed to comfortably make big purchases. Consumers may pull the trigger on items anyway, but often, they end up with merchandise that they then have to send back or never wind up using.

The question now is whether the company can scale. To do so, it’ll need to rise above the din of other e-commerce platforms to attract enough customers to support its network of experts (and vice versa), and it’s a pretty crowded landscape out there, even with the magic of search-engine optimization and Facebook ads.

Curated will also need to strike enough deals with goods manufacturers to make the platform compelling for shoppers, and to ensure that the level of the advice that’s provided to those consumers is, and remains, high.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vivas doesn’t sound concerned. He thinks he’s built a strong team. He’s also excited about the growing network of experts the team has pieced together since founding the company in the summer of 2017.

“You take someone who is passionate about something and you let them make money off it, and good things happen,” he says.

“In allowing people to monetize their knowledge, the unlock is just unbelievable.”

Time will tell. The service launches publicly today.