• Online Travel Platform KimKim Brings Back the Travel Agent

    Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 10.11.56 PMSometimes, there can be a little too much disruption. So goes the thesis of Joost Schreve, the former head of mobile for TripAdvisor, who left the company last November and started his own startup, KimKim, in December.

    The nascent company — newly seed-funded with $1 million from investors, including NFX Guild — is catering to the presumably many people who no long want to plan their next vacation by scouring the web. Its simple, secret weapon? Good old-fashioned travel agents, who talk online with customers via a conversational interface.

    We talked with Schreve earlier this morning to learn more about what he’s developing at his four-person, Palo Alto, Ca.-based company. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length.

    You left TripAdvisor — where you worked after selling it your startup in 2011 — expressly to start this new thing. What wasn’t TripAdvisor doing that you think you can?

    TripAdvisor and many sites like it have a lot of information, so users have to do a lot of filtering and comparing and it becomes a very painful process, especially for trips that are complex or longer. The average consumer goes to 38 different sites, according to an Expedia study, and they spend more than 10 hours [researching these more involved trips].

    The difference between this painful process and a nice process is one person who is unbiased and can help you.

    We are talking, of course, of the long-maligned travel agent. But how do you convince people that these online agents are unbiased and not getting kickbacks for their recommendations? Wasn’t that part of the problem to begin with?

    More here.

  • Howdy Raises $1.5 Million from Top VCs to Build Apps for Slack

    howdyDespite a checkered history with online platforms, developers are always looking for the next big distribution model and a small but growing number is betting Slack, the popular group-messaging platform, is the way to go.

    One such startup, Austin-based Howdy, may be the first to nab venture funding based largely on that vision. Specifically, the company, which has developed a customizable chat bot application that runs automated tasks for teams on Slack, has just nabbed $1.5 million in venture funding from Bloomberg Beta, True Ventures, a small angel group called Outlier and numerous individual investors.

    Howdy is first and foremost a time saver for now, especially when it comes to meetings. For example, after connecting to Slack, the app can simultaneously message each member of a team, collecting status updates that can be archived and viewed by everyone. The idea: to keep meetings from turning into one long catch-up session and enabling attendees to focus on decision-making instead. (Worth noting: Howdy can also be used to collect everyone’s lunch orders. It’s up to the team using it.)

    Howdy co-founder Ben Brown says the still-in-beta company will eventually charge customers on a monthly basis but that it’s a “little early to know the details.” What he says he does know is that providing applications, content and services via messaging applications is becoming a “huge opportunity.”

    More here.

  • The Case Against Anthony Noto, and Most Other CFOs, Becoming CEO

    Anthony NotoDick Costolo — who is stepping down as CEO of Twitter in July — has, at a couple of recent conferences, described Twitter CFO Anthony Noto as more than an “accountant” and said that Noto was not brought into the company “just be a CFO.”

    Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal even suggested that Noto has emerged as a front-runner to replace Costolo, describing Noto – a former tech banker at Goldman Sachs and a former CFO of the National Football League – as a “take-charge” executive, based on interviews with his supporters at the company.

    But promoting Noto to the top spot may not be such a great idea — not based on the experience of longtime executive recruiter Jon Holman, who says CFOs tend to make lousy CEOs. In fact, of the hundreds of C-level executives that Holman has placed over the last 30-plus years, he says he has “never” placed a CFO as a CEO – “nor would I recommend it to someone.”

    Holman “doesn’t know Noto at all,” he is quick to say. He adds that Noto could become the “second or third guy in history who has gone from CFO to CEO and been successful.” But he’s highly skeptical of the model for a variety of reasons.

    First, it’s likely that until April — when Noto was also put in charge of Twitter’s floundering marketing department — Noto has never managed anything near the roughly 4,000 employees that Twitter has around the world.

    “At Goldman, Noto was an analyst, meaning he was a domain expert who knows a huge amount about various industries,” observes Holman. “But he was never managing large numbers of people,  and the people he was managing [in the several years that Noto spent as co-head of the investment bank’s technology, media and telecommunications group] were analysts – not people in marketing, sales, finance, engineering . . .” notes Holman.

    More, says Holman, while CFOs generally sound like they know everything, they do not. “Because CFOs sit in on board meetings along with the CEO, they speak as if they understand the business.They understand the financials of the business. They know that, ‘We’re spending 33 percent of revenue on sales and marketing.’ But they’ve never run a sales organization, and their job has never been on the line if there’s a revenue shortfall,” he notes.

    Not last, CFOs tend to reign in spending and to generally take the most conservative path possible, notes Holman. That’s probably not ideal at Twitter, which has shied away from making dramatic changes to its platform — and been soundly criticized for it. “Most CEOs are outer directed, while CFOs are inner directed,” says Holman. Using a baseball analogy, he observes that “Most CEO types want to swing for the fences; CFOs want players to hit singles.”

    That’s not to say Twitter should rule out Noto completely, suggests Holman. In fact, he could make sense as CEO in the very short term.

    Among other reasons why a company like Twitter might bring in a CFO is if “you have investors who think the sky is falling, or, in this case, that it’s a big problem that Twitter isn’t converting tweets to revenue. CFOs generally speak in appropriate adult-like tones and can [massage] investors and assure them that a company will get it all figured out.”

    Another argument for promoting the CFO is when a company is just going to sell itself anyway, says Holman. In that case, “What you need is someone who understands how to sell a company, someone who will run a [sales] process, which Noto clearly knows how to do.”

    A third reason a CFO like Noto could make sense right now is “if there’s a perception that what a company needs to do is big-time pruning: laying people off, getting expenses under control, those kinds of things that CFOs tend to be really good at.”

    Of course, all of these scenarios would be a prelude to bringing in someone else, and Twitter already has an interim CEO lined up in co-founder Jack Dorsey.  Could we see the equivalent of two interim CEOs at the company?

    Twitter “can do whatever it wants,” says Holman. “Is it a clever strategy? Probably not.”

  • Uber Exec Tom Fallows on the Company’s Culture, and More

    Tom FallowsAt a StrictlyVC event in San Francisco last week, Tom Fallows, Director of Global Expansion Products at Uber, talked with us about what’s important to Uber right now, why Uber sees the fight for India and China as far from over, and the various ways that Uber and Google differ culturally. (Fallows was hired away from Google late last year. He’d previously spent five years with the search giant, developing, among other things, the Google Express delivery service.)

    Fallows couldn’t answer questions about Uber’s funding situation or its reported bid on Nokia’s mapping business, but he was refreshingly forthcoming when answering others. Our chat, edited for length, follows.

    Explain what you do.

    Obviously, we have the mainline business of offering transportation to people; [my job is largely looking into] how do we expand into new opportunities.  Uber for Business is one of my projects, for example, and that’s just building an enterprise version of Uber so that companies large and small can use it for their business travel.

    Is that taking up the majority of your time? How many initiatives are you working on at any one time?

    It is taking up the majority of my time. I have six different teams that are working on new projects all the time, and in a healthy ecosystem way, projects that aren’t working get wound down or swallowed up and resources [are] diverted.

    Can you point to something that’s been shut down recently?

    Nothing since I’ve been [at Uber]. But I remember while at Google, reading about Uber testing a concept [to deliver common convenience store items to select customers through a pilot project] in Washington, D.C that no longer exists.

    What can you tell us about how some others of its initiatives — including delivering food and packages — are doing?

    I can’t discuss any numbers, but as the press has reported, the Uber Eats [food delivery] product has expanded into several more cities and I think the market has been pretty strong. We’re doing well with Uber Rush, which is a [bike] courier service [that Uber rolled out in New York a year ago].

    What do you make of the argument that not everyone wants Uber to deliver both their food and their transportation — that people want different relationships with different brands?

    I don’t think consumers inherently care about how their item is getting to them so long as it’s getting to them effectively and quickly.

    You founded Google Express. The service has been portrayed in the press as troubled recently, including because the head of Google’s commerce businesses, Sameer Samat, has left to join Jawbone as president. Is that fair?

    I can’t speak to recent stuff, but when I left five months or so ago, but it was doing well. I think it’s the wrong conclusion to draw that [Samat’s departure] is a reflection on the commerce business. It’s a big driver of growth, and a big driver of profitability [at Google]. I don’t know anything but I suspect this was a poaching situation.

    The problem we had at Google Express was that we didn’t have enough capacity. Like every single delivery and on-demand service out there, we had such product-market fit that we just couldn’t keep up with demand. At Uber, that causes surge pricing. At Shopping Express, that caused sellouts, and that was always the pain point that we were dealing with.

    Can you confirm that Uber is currently raising $2 billion more from investors at a $50 billion valuation?

    I read about it as you guys did [in the audience]. I have no idea.

    If the company were to raise $2 billion, what would its top priorities be?  Expanding domestically? Competing more aggressively in India and China?

    I don’t in any way tie this to a fundraising. I literally don’t know anything about it and don’t know if or why we need more money, but the company had said in the last funding round that there are big global opportunities that we’re going after, and in our type of business, for anybody building liquidity and network effect and going into new markets, it can be very expensive.

    India and China are obviously big battlegrounds. How do you compete with regional taxi app companies that have something like 99 percent of the market?

    China and India are huge potential markets and places where we really want to participate  and where we think we can offer great service. [And] although the alternatives in China are very big, the majority of the business is in the taxi ride hailing, which isn’t a business, it’s purely a matchmaking business. They take no fee whatsoever. They have, similar to us, black car and Uber X [type] businesses, but they aren’t nearly as big, so it’s not . . . an open-and-shut case.

    One thing that’s interesting: The transportation business is truly, inherently local. At Google, of course, we could do localization, and we had sales teams in each country, but we didn’t have tech teams or custom features in that many countries, whereas at Uber, you really have to serve every single city independently — even within the U.S. We consider it a strategic advantage, our ability to operationalize at scale the management of these locations that need custom technology and custom solutions.

    What are some other differences between these two powerful companies? We know you joined Uber just five months ago, but are there early impressions you can share?

    Well, the first, strange [observation I made] when I walked into Uber was that one out of three people is a former Google colleague. There are also lots of people from Facebook.  Top to bottom at Uber, it’s [top-notch employees].

    The biggest difference at Uber is that, at heart, it’s still very much a startup with an action bias. In my first couple of weeks, we’d be talking about a new feature and inevitably in that conversation, the question would arise: How long would this take to get out? And someone would say, “I think it’ll be two to three . . .” And in my head, I’d just default, think weeks. And they’d finish, “…days.” And I think, what? [Laughs.]

    It’s a combination of a couple things. It’s much younger technology stack. Also, we’ve all had that experience where something needs change and you just change it and 12 minutes later it’s in the world, and Uber is still on that continuum versus my experience at Google, which, I absolutely love the people and I have nothing but great things to say about it, but it’s not necessarily known for its nimbleness and speed. One of the challenges I had with Google Express was how do we launch and iterate in an environment where you have multi-week review cycles, and all for good reason. Everything had a justification behind it. It’s all part of being a big company. But it’s inherently slower.

    You get the feeling that nearly everything trickles up to Larry Page at Google. At Uber, whose sign-off do you need?

    Very explicitly, the rule inside is: nobody needs to sign off. As a product manager, I’m an owner of my products and it’s my right and responsibility to launch things when I think they’re ready to launch and to be accountable for those consequences. It’s a very intentional, constructive environment, and it’s a bet, and you get mostly great outcomes in terms of speed. And sometimes you stumble because, well, safety checks are put in place for good reasons at good companies.

    So we’re still wonderfully on the side that it’s small enough and people subscribe to this ownership mentality of: I’m going to build, I’m going to launch, but I’m also going to sweat the details and whether it’s something silly like a typo or a weird experience or, meta like a privacy issue, I’m going to be really sure I don’t do that.

    Months after you left Google, Bloomberg reported that Google – an Uber investor – is developing its own self-driving app. Soon after, Google said, “It’s no big deal, it’s just this internal project.” Can you tell us what’s really going on?

    Uh, no. [Laughs.] Google is working on everything so I think probably all sides are true. I know a bunch of folks there . . . so there’s nothing particular I want to comment on . . .

    What about the news that Uber is bidding on Here to get away from its reliance on Google Maps? Is that happening and, either way, does it want to rely less on Google Maps?

    I read about that, too, and I don’t know. I think, macro, as Amazon has progressively moved toward owing its fulfillment centers and even now last-mile delivery, any company in the world strategically wants to ensure that the things that are important to them they somehow they control — whether via a strategic investment, partnerships, or building [their own products]. And there are a number of ways to achieve [that end]. I don’t know anything, but I wasn’t shocked to read that.

    Looking forward, what will Uber look like? This week it was flying people to Cannes in leased helicopters. Will it eventually be leasing planes? Will we see it get into the shipping business? What might surprise people about its roadmap?

    Whether it’s employing helicopters or delivering candy, those are mostly wonderful marketing stunts to get buzz going rather than [future lines of business]. So the short answer is probably no to those things. But, I think, goodness knows.

  • Andreessen Horowitz Bets Big on Tanium — Again

    Orion HindawiTanium, an eight-year-old, Emeryville, Ca.-based company founded by father and son David and Orion Hindawi, has landed $52 million from Andreessen Horowitz less than a year after raising $90 million from the Sand Hill Road firm.

    Somewhat amazingly, it hasn’t touched a penny of it, either, says Orion Hindawi, the company’s CTO.

    In fact, Tanium — whose security and systems management software can deliver all kinds of information about every machine and device running on a corporate network within seconds – has been profitable since 2012, and it’s growing fast, says Hindawi. Last year, it increased its total billings by 400 percent and grew its employee base from 25 to 175. It plans to employ between 500 and 600 people by year end.

    So why raise quite so much? Two reasons, says Hindawi. The company is seeing an “immense amount of opportunity” that it wants to “even more aggressively” pursue — particularly in international markets like Japan, England, and Australia, where its business has begun to take off.

    Tanium has also mapped out how much it needs to survive for three years without revenue in the case of a “black swan” event. “I like real cushions,” says Hindawi, who cofounded an earlier company with his father called BigFix that launched in 1999. BigFix survived the dot com boom and bust, eventually selling to IBM in 2010 for a reported $400 million. But the downturn also made Hindawi acutely aware of how challenging it is to survive lousy market conditions.

    Not that he needs to worry this time around, seemingly.

    Andreessen Horowitz is so taken by Tanium’s technology that despite its enormous investment in the company, it owns “substantially less than 25 percent,” says Hindawi.

    Perhaps it’s no wonder that Hindawi thinks highly of Andreessen Horowitz, too. He points to the expertise of of Andreessen partner and former Microsoft executive Steven Sinofksy, who sits on Tanium’s board. (“Usually, I’ve dealt with VCs who didn’t have direct knowledge of our space,” Hindawi says.)

    He also cites Andreessen Horowitz’s “executive briefing center,” a low-flying, 50-person unit that focuses narrowly on bringing in customers to the firm’s enterprise portfolio companies.

    It’s “one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen,” says Hindawi, who says that half of Tanium’s customers have come from its own pipeline. The other half, he says, have come through Andreessen Horowitz.

  • Jason Lemkin on the “Slack” Effect

    shutterstock_83855317There’s no shortage of talk lately about frothy private company valuations, particularly when it comes to enterprise companies. Slack Technologies, the company behind the increasingly popular enterprise messaging platform, is the current poster child. Less than six months ago, Slack raised $120 million at a billion-dollar-plus valuation that many found stunning. Now, Bloomberg says it’s talking with investors about a round that would value it at more than $2 billion.

    Very notably, Slack is growing at a torrid pace. As of mid February, it reportedly had 500,000 users, a number that had grown by 35 percent in just the first six weeks of this year. In fact, Jason Lemkin, a managing director at the early-stage, enterprise investment firm Storm Ventures, seems to think Slack is probably worth every penny at a $2 billion-plus valuation.

    “No one is dumb in Silicon Valley,” he argues. “Early-stage investors are rolling the dice on hypergrowth and betting companies like Slack will be decacorns” worth more than $10 billion one day. “These crazy valuations, generally in [business-to-business companies], are associated with crazy growth.”

    Lemkin notes, for example, that Slack is growing faster than the enterprise social network Yammer — and that Yammer grew faster than the online file sharing company Box. Both are success stories. Yammer, founded in 2008, sold to Microsoft for $1.2 billion in 2012. Box, founded in 2005, went public in January and is currently valued at nearly $2 billion.

    But in both cases, their rates of adoption can’t touch what newer startups are seeing, says Lemkin. “[Today’s crop of leading enterprise startups are] growing their month-over-month revenue by mid-teen percentages. And after they hit a million dollars in revenue, that’s a lot of compounding.”

    A variety of factors explain such accelerated growth, says Lemkin, including that the adoption of new business-to-business technologies often trails business-to-consumer adoption by three to five years. “That means lot of verticals are just getting ‘webified’ today, including doctors’ offices, e-discovery for regular people,” along with lots of other small and mid-size companies that are realizing what they can gain from the power and low-maintenance needs of hosted systems.

    Lemkin also points to the growing piece of CIOs’ budgets that are being spent on SaaS products rather than traditional on-premises technology. Instead of buying their own servers and storage systems, companies are now buying both as a service — along with enterprise analytics, security, and more.

    “You only need a few more percent of that roughly trillion dollars in enterprise budgets to create, say, 40 more Workdays,” says Lemkin, referring to the cloud-based HR and finance technology company that went public in 2012 and is now valued at more than $16 billion.

    It’s not an outrageous estimate. Global SaaS software revenue is reportedly expected to reach $106 billion by next year, an increase of 21 percent of projected spending levels this year.

    Indeed, while industry observers fret over soaring valuations, Lemkin says it’s those enterprise startups with monthly revenue growth in the single digits that should be doing some hand-wringing. While “you’d have gotten funded in days a couple of years ago, today, no one is going to take a meeting with you.”

    Slack is “sort of [the standard that] everyone wants now,” he says.

  • Did Pinterest Just Change the Game?

    pinterestIn tech, employees often join startups with the idea that they might become millionaires if those companies go public or are sold. But even experienced startup veterans often underestimate the costs involved in exiting one’s stake. Purchasing equity that has appreciated can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars — if not millions — and most startup documents only give employees 90 days to exercise their fully vested options once they move on.

    Pinterest is rejecting that age-old program. According to Fortune, the digital scrapbooking company recently told employees that if they’ve been an employee for at least two years and leave the company — or are let go — they’ll have up to seven years to exercise their vested options.

    Presumably, Pinterest is trying to attract the best and brightest by offering them more freedom than a typical startup payment package would allow.

    Whether other startups follow suit anytime soon remains to be seen. There are plenty of reasons things work they way they do, including that it’s often in a startup’s best interests to be able to reclaim equity if an employee can’t purchase his or her shares within 90 days of his or her exit. Machiavellian as it may seem, companies might also want to retain their leverage over talented employees to keep them right where they are.

    And there are other arguments to preserve the status quo. For example, you could imagine companies’ unwillingness to provide financial information to a lot of former employees who might be entitled to it under the law, yet who might have gone on to work at a competing company.

    There are also plenty of secondary buyers capable of providing employees with some liquidity.

    Of course, anyone who has been through a secondary sale can attest that they involve plenty of pros and cons. Demand and supply have to align. Many buyers want information rights that can give them assurance about the startups in which they’re investing, yet many companies don’t want to provide that information. Secondary buyers also tend to drive a very hard bargain because they know it’s not a liquid market.

    Our bet? As more companies take their time in going public and those golden handcuffs become more onerous for employees, something is going to give. Trying to maintain the same kinds of controls won’t remain feasible forever.

    Pinterest employees who wait to exercise their shares may face a much bigger tax bill years from now. But they’ll also have much more time to line up a secondary buyer or otherwise plan to raise the capital to buy their shares and deal with that tax hit.

    It’s going to be very hard for other startups to compete with that kind of advantage. Over time, it might prove impossible.

  • Yik Yak: The Startup in Twitter’s Rearview Mirror

    yik-yak-appYik Yak, an app that acts like a local bulletin board, allowing users within a 1.5-mile range to post to it anonymously, hasn’t received nearly as much press as other anonymous apps, including Whisper and Secret. It’s seeing much more user pick-up, though. As of last night, Yik Yak was the 27th most downloaded free app in the U.S., right behind Twitter, according to app analytics company App Annie. It was also the sixth most downloaded social media app. Twitter was ranked fifth.

    The year-old, Atlanta-based company is almost exclusively a college-based phenomenon for now – and very much by design. Indeed, in August, Yik Yak hired 140 campus “representatives” to plaster universities with its marketing materials, a campaign that appears to have been very effective, though Yik Yak doesn’t disclose user numbers.

    The question is whether the app makes sense beyond college campuses. Yesterday, StrictlyVC talked with Cameron Lester of Azure Capital, one of the company’s backers, about it. Our conversation has been edited for length.

    You found Yik Yak early on. How?

    We found it through outbound research. Anyone who spends time with millennials can see their growing lack of interest in the traditional Facebook experience and gravitation to mobile social; as we were forming a thesis around [what’s next], Yik Yak appeared on our radar. We reached out to one of the company’s seed investors who we know and we ended up participating in its [$1.5 million] seed round. When the company was raising a more formal amount — its $10 million Series A, which came together quickly — DCM led the round and we participated in it, investing well above our pro rata.

    Yik Yak is taking off on college campuses. Why is that, and can it grow beyond universities, or is that a big enough market?

    The advantages to [a college body] are numerous. Yik Yak isn’t offensive relative to some other social media apps that include photos, because from an anonymity perspective, photos create a big problem. The fact that it’s location based, bringing together users in a 1.5-mile radius, also provides a lot of contextual value, particularly if you have a demographic in that range that has a lot of affinity like college students. Yik Yak also [plays into] a big backlash against this concept of [a trackable] online identity. People want the same level of privacy online that they enjoy offline.

    In the meantime, we’re already starting to see Yik Yak bleed out into other places. This summer, for example, when people got off campus, networks sprung up on Wall Street, with Goldman Sachs interns bantering with Merrill Lynch interns. The same thing happened on Capitol Hill, with Democratic and Republican interns. And in summer, the user base was a fraction of what it is today.

    Yik Yak recently made it possible to peek into other Yik Yak feeds anywhere in the world. That would seem to have a lot of really interesting applications, including for journalists who right now rely heavily on Twitter for breaking news.

    Yes, you can now place a pointer on a map of the world and go to Moscow, Hong Kong, Dubai or elsewhere to see what’s going on. It’s pretty crazy. You can’t participate but you can see what’s happening. Basically, American college kids are [introducing it everywhere]. The company’s next phase of growth is urban areas around the globe.

    How will the company make money?

    Step one is to get to critical mass. But Yik Yak is uniquely positioned to monetize around local affinity. We’re living in sharing economy and all kinds of local services would love access to this kind of user base. You can also imagine sponsorships, local advertising through a model like Sponsored Tweets . . . That the audience is especially local and can be segmented provides unique revenue opportunities.

    Yik Yak has already been involved in cases of bullying. To keep the app out of the hands of high school students, who began using it to abuse one another earlier this year, the company had to draw a geofence around nearly every high school and middle school in the country. Do you worry about the liabilities or risk to your brand?

    Back in the spring, I had two middle school students – one just went to high school – and all that [bullying] stuff [in high schools] was going down and my reaction was: No way. Then my son came home and said, “They told us about this app that we shouldn’t use.” Then I was really thinking: No. But these founders are white hat guys; they’ve wanted to build something big and useful and benign from the beginning, and they’ve been very proactive about getting bullying and any kind of comments that shouldn’t be there off the system. I think if anything, we’re on the back side of this. I feel like if there was a risk, that’s already been largely alleviated and what we have to do is more of the same.

  • Troubled Payday Lender Wonga Still Has a Chance, Insist Insiders

    wonga_2368090bIn the span of seven years, Wonga, a London-based online payday lender, managed to become one of the best known Internet brands in the U.K, with half the buses in London plastered with its ads, along with a good number of soccer players, through Wonga’s sponsorship of the English Premier League team Newcastle United.

    Then, late last week, the company disclosed that it was writing off some $350 million of debt – at a cost of roughly $56 million to the company — following a “voluntary agreement” between the company and the U.K.’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which took over regulation of the consumer finance sector last year. Wonga’s implicit admission: That despite the more than 8,000 pieces of information that its algorithm takes into account when assessing a potential borrower, the company had lent money to people (330,000 of them) it should have declined.

    Andy Haste, an executive chairman who was installed at Wonga in July to rehabilitate the company, said that going forward, the company is committed to lending only to those who can “reasonably afford” a loan. Haste – who was hired into Wonga after it was caught sending bogus letters from nonexistent law firms to customers in arrears – also added that he “agreed with the concerns expressed by the FCA and as a consequence of our discussions we have committed to taking these actions.”

    So when did things go south at Wonga and can the company — which has raised roughly $145 million from Balderton Capital, Accel Partners, Wellcome Trust, Oak Investment Partners, Greylock Partners, Dawn Capital, Meritech Capital Partners, and Index Ventures over the years — ever recover? Unsurprisingly, it depends on who you ask.

    Insiders generally paint a picture of a company that’s been the victim of a changing regulatory environment. When Wonga was launched, its business was lightly regulated by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), which was “not a banking oversight function that had a great deal of power or was intrusive,” observes one investor. Wonga suddenly faced a much more stringent set of checks and balances when the regulation of consumer credit was transferred last year from the OFT to the FCA.

    The FCA’s regulators have been overly harsh, too, insists another source, who suggests its cozy relationships with established players is primarily why the FCA almost immediately began poring over the fine print at Wonga. “Wonga’s business was always regulated,” says the insider. “From the first day, it was licensed; it had its own underwriting agents and was being reviewed by regulators. But becoming such a large brand so quickly was hurting the established banks, which are very influential in a country like the U.K.”

    Still, those who spoke with StrictlyVC also concede that Wonga made plenty of mistakes – not working earlier with financial services authorities, “running the business a lot looser than they should have,” and those threatening debt collection letters among them. (The latter proved an especially big embarrassment to the Church of England, which said it had unwittingly invested in Wonga through an investment fund; it ditched its stake in July.)

    The company’s once-renowned algorithm also appears to have failed the company – a lesson, possibly, to many newer lending companies that believe the sophisticated algorithms they’re developing are akin to impenetrable moats.

    As says one insider: “With algorithms, you always think you’re doing the right thing until the sh_t hits the fan. You ask the guys involved in Long Term Capital Management [the famous hedge fund that collapsed in the late ‘90s] whether they knew there was a ‘black swan’ in their algorithm; they didn’t.”

    The question now is whether Wonga stands any chance of surviving. Haste has said he believes Wonga, which serves 1 million customers, can succeed as a small company. Others close to the company aren’t so sure about its fate. Says one source: “Will Wonga be a big business again? I doubt it because of the damage to their brand reputation.”

    Say another: “If Wonga can afford to pay the penalty and stick around, they have a business to build. Consumers in the U.K. don’t have a lot of other good options. The banks are still doing a sh_tty job.”

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  • After Onavo

    flying blindEarlier this week, The Information published a piece about mobile software makers who are flying blind following Facebook’s acquisition last year of Onavo, an app analytics startup, even as consumers spend more time inside apps than ever before. In fact, according to a new Comscore report, activity on smartphones and tablets has grown to 60 percent of our digital media time, driven predominately by apps.

    On the desktop, of course, Comscore, Nielsen and SEO companies can learn a lot about site referrals based on URL tracking, and for the most part, everyone has access to the same data. By contrast, the mobile ecosystem offers no such visibility. Aside from tracking how may times an app has been downloaded, says Keval Desai of Interwest Partners, “There’s no true visibility into the traffic of top sites, no visibility into app discovery.”

    Desai compares the dearth of mobile analytics to the old days of the Internet, when there were “these closed islands, like AOL and CompuServe, before the web came along and opened everything up.” Today’s “islands” are Google and Apple and, increasingly, Facebook, which control most of the mobile app market and thus can see what others cannot, including how often particular apps are used.

    Things don’t look to change any time soon, either, despite the growing number of companies attempting to make money off of mobile analytics. These companies range from four-year-old, San Francisco-based App Annie, which tracks downloads, to Singular.net, also in San Francisco, a new company in the broader mobile-usage-tracking space that was founded by ex-Onavo employees and raised $5 million in seed funding from General Catalyst Partners this summer.

    Other analytics startups trying to figure out mobile analytics include MobileactionSensor TowerMixPanelAmplitudeAppGenius, and Mobiledevhq, a Seattle-based company that was acquired earlier this month for undisclosed terms.

    The question is whether the absence of a mobile analytics standard will stunt the development of new mobile apps. Desai, for one, isn’t ready to toss in the towel.

    While a lack of transparency into the ecosystem may frustrate reporters and venture capitalists looking for the Next Mobile Trend, the rest of the world may wonder, “Who cares?” suggests Desai. Consumers can visit an app store to get an idea of what’s new and exciting, he notes. VCs employ people to write scripts to figure out what’s hot and what’s trending. Meanwhile, “If you’re a large advertiser and want to know what are the most frequently used apps by a particular demographic, you can get that data through your ad agencies or through the publishers themselves. App publishers have an incentive to voluntarily disclose that information – in private. It’s like with TV and radio and print, where you have publishers who, for the right reasons, aren’t interesting in [publicly] disclosing their viewership data.”

    Desai — whose firm was an investor in the mobile analytics firm Flurry, which sold to Yahoo earlier this summer in a reported $200 million deal — adds that he “isn’t saying that [mobile analytics is] not important.” Better insight into how applications are performing would be great. “But people who really care about this stuff have a way of finding it out.”

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